WASHINGTON — NASA is back in the hunt for a dedicated small-satellite launcher, with a firm, fixed-price contract aimed at reducing a backlog of more than 50 cubesats the agency has amassed through its Cubesat Launch Initiative flight brokerage program. 

Released for bids Aug. 5, the NASA Launch Services Enabling eXploration & Technology (NEXT) contract is a three-pronged experiment for the U.S. civil space agency, which is trying simultaneously to launch cubesats without relying on ride-along arrangements, accelerate development of a new space rocket and build a framework for buying such rockets on a commercial basis, should its latest cubesat launch experiment prove successful.

A cubesat is a standardized small satellite design. Single cubesat units, which can be combined into a variety of multiunit configurations, measure 10 centimeters on a side and weigh about 1 kilogram. The tiny, relatively cheap spacecraft have long been popular in the academic community, but NASA, the National Science Foundation and parts of the U.S. military have also taken an interest.

Under NEXT, NASA is looking for a rocket that can loft three three-unit cubesats at a time. Specifically, the launcher must be able to send a 15-kilogram payload to a minimum orbital altitude of 425 kilometers at an inclination between zero degrees and 98 degrees. The first, and only, NEXT launch would notionally take place in 2016. Envisioned as a commercial operation, the launch would require a license from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. 

“The [rocket] suppliers had been saying [they] think [they are] pretty close to being able to close a business case and sell these,” Darren Bedell, systems integration manager for NASA’s Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said in an Aug. 20 interview. “Their problem has always been, ‘Who’s willing to buy the first one?’ Well, we thought we could go and buy it.”

NEXT would be a one-off contract, but it will give the agency an idea of what it needs to do should it ever decide to create a small-satellite launch catalog, similar to the NASA Launch Services 2 catalog it maintains for much larger vehicles. The smallest active rocket in that catalog today is Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Pegasus XL, which can boost around 450 kilograms to low Earth orbit.

“We could turn this into something like [a launch services] contract on a much smaller basis, or we could continue to do it one-off every time … we want [to] buy launches,” Bedell said. 

NEXT is neither NASA’s first attempt to provide a shot in the arm for the U.S. small-satellite launch industry nor the largest carrot the agency has dangled for aspiring operators of small launch vehicles.

Back in November, NASA canceled a Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge that would have awarded $3 million to the first company to stage two single-unit cubesat launches in two weeks. At an average price of $1.5 million per single-unit launch, the potential award under the scuttled competition far eclipses the price NASA says it is willing to pay for a dedicated launch under NEXT: $200,000 to $300,000 for a three-unit cubesat, according to Jason Crusan, director of the Advanced Exploration Systems Program at NASA headquarters here.

That is about the going rate for ride-along arrangements, Crusan said in a phone interview. 

When NASA canceled the Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge late last year, the agency said only a few manufacturers — out of 15 potential competitors reviewed by staff at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. — were anywhere close to fielding prize-winning rockets. 

The companies that stood the best chance of succeeding, agency spokesman David Steitz told SpaceNews, had one thing in common: They were already doing work on small launch vehicles for the Defense Department under the either the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Airborne Launch Assist Space Access program or the Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s Soldier-Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space project.

Contractors for the DARPA air-launch project, which is looking for a way to launch 45-kilogram payloads to orbit for $1 million or less, include: Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. of El Segundo, Calif.; Lockheed Martin Skunk Works of Palmdale, Calif.; Boeing Defense, Space & Security of Huntington Beach, Calif.; Virgin Galactic of New Mexico; and boutique rocket shop Ventions of San Francisco. 

The prime contract for the Army’s program, aimed at creating a rocket that can launch 25 kilograms to a 750-kilometer orbit inclined at 28.5 degrees on 24 hours’ notice for less than $1 million, went to Quantum Research International of Huntsville, Ala.

NEXT might also be a suitable next step for small shops NASA has already funded to develop dedicated small-satellite launchers, such as Garvey Spacecraft of Long Beach, Calif., which is working on a small, two-stage, liquid-fueled launch vehicle.

All of these companies “are certainly potential bidders” for NEXT, Bedell told SpaceNews Aug. 20.

Meanwhile, NASA continues to feed its cubesat backlog.

On Aug. 13, the space agency began taking applications under its fifth annual Cubesat Launch Initiative, in which the agency will arrange piggyback rides for cubesats looking to launch between 2014 and 2017. 

In the first four rounds of this initiative, NASA selected 89 payloads for launch opportunities from 2011 through 2016. Of those, 12 have already been launched, and 21 are scheduled for launch later this year, NASA said in an Aug. 13 press release.

“We’re flying 20 to 25 [cubesats] a year, but having calls that generate 30 a year creates the backlog,” said Anne Sweet, program executive for the Launch Services Program at NASA headquarters.

If the cubesat backlog keeps growing, Crusan said, NASA might become more selective about which cubesats get a ride. Today, he said, about 60 percent of those that apply get on the shortlist for launch.

Meanwhile, the current U.S. space launch manifest leaves room for 20 to 35 cubesat launch ride-alongs a year, Crusan said.

“That obviously doesn’t fly off our backlog,” Crusan said. “Unless there are more launch vehicles we can fly on as secondaries, or there’s a dedicated launcher, we probably won’t catch up to the backlog.”


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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...