Editorial | NASA Venture Class Procurement Could Nurture, Ride Small Sat Trend

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NASA in recent years has demonstrated a willingness to embrace innovations in the space industry to everyone’s benefit, hosted payloads being one example. The latest case in point is its proposed Venture Class Launch Services procurement, in which the agency is attempting to simultaneously leverage and support the ongoing cubesat revolution.

In a draft request for proposals released May 5, NASA said it is seeking one or two dedicated launches to carry 60 kilograms of U-class spacecraft — more commonly known as cubesats — to low Earth orbit in 2018. No specific mission was identified, but NASA has about 50 scientific cubesats awaiting rides to orbit under its Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program.

As everyone knows, cubesats have become hugely popular and, with the march of technology, are capable of performing ever more demanding missions, including space and Earth science. Typically they are launched as secondary payloads or deployed from ports on the International Space Station, but Garrett Skrobot, director of NASA’s nanosatellite launch program, said cubesats are increasingly being designed for complex science missions that require dedicated launches to specific orbits.

If the space agency can help bring even one new vehicle into the market, it will have done itself, as well as the small-satellite industry, a great service.

Slated to get underway in earnest this year, the Venture Class Launch Services procurement is not NASA’s only initiative to spur development of a dedicated cubesat launcher. Well under way is a separate acquisition for a dedicated launch of a 15-kilogram nanosatellite mission aboard a vehicle being developed by Generation Orbit under a $2.1 million contract.  But NASA has identified a requirement to handle heavier nanosatellite missions and has specifically cited as an example the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, or CYGNSS, consisting of eight satellites weighing 25 kilograms apiece.

The CYGNSS mission, booked on what undoubtedly is a very expensive ride to orbit aboard a Pegasus XL rocket, is twice the weight of what NASA is targeting with the Venture Class procurement, which raises the question of exactly what sized rocket the agency should be supporting as a customer. Some say the commercial market is demanding a bigger rocket. There is no right or wrong answer, of course, and NASA in any event is the best judge of its own requirements. One advantage to a smaller rocket is that, assuming the price is right, a user can always procure more than one if required to get a constellation to the right orbit.

As currently drawn up, the Venture Class procurement appears well matched for a couple of launch vehicles already in development, including Rocket Labs’ proposed Electron and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s planned Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) system, the latter of which is aiming for a $1 million cost per mission. ALASA, featuring an expendable rocket carried aloft beneath the belly of an F-15 combat aircraft, is slated to begin test launches as soon as next year.

NASA and DARPA have struggled over the years in attempts to field or spur commercial development of low-cost launchers, and these latest efforts will undoubtedly face challenges. One thing that’s different this time around is the explosion in cubesat applications, which is fueling unprecedented demand for low-cost launch services.

Sir Martin Sweeting, chairman of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., who led the way in bringing small satellites from experimental platforms to operational respectability, warned recently that the cubesats may be too much in fashion these days, driving investment based on flimsy business models. At the same time, however, Sweeting lamented the persistent lack of dedicated, cost-effective small launchers, a situation that he said discourages innovation.

NASA is not taking a big risk in its Venture Class procurement — at this point the agency is only seeing what’s out there or on the horizon. But the agency’s interest in this sector can only help aspiring launch service providers win the investment necessary to make their vehicles a reality. If the space agency can help bring even one new vehicle into the market, it will have done itself, as well as the small-satellite industry, a great service.