Getting the Cubesat Revolution Out of Low Gear

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Editorial | Access to Indian Rockets Should Give Industry a Needed Boost

The revolution underway in small-satellite and cubesat applications has been enabled in part by a growing set of launch options, including the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Orbital ATK Antares rockets that make regular cargo runs to the International Space Station. Satellites launched as secondary payloads aboard these vehicles can be inserted directly into orbit or deployed from a special dispenser aboard the space station.

More vehicles are in development as entrepreneurial companies seek to cash in on what today looks like a promising market for launching micro satellites. These range from dedicated launchers like Rocket Lab’s Electron to Spaceflight Inc.’s Sherpa secondary payload adapter, which is slated to debut in the next year and in future iterations will be outfitted with a propulsion system to provide more customized satellite deployments.

Despite the trend, however, some cubesat operators are less than thrilled with their enablers. Speaking Nov. 10 at the NextSpace Investor Conference in San Francisco, Will Marshall, co-founder and chief executive of Planet Labs, which lost 34 imaging cubesats in the recent Falcon 9 and Antares failures, said launches of his company’s hardware are delayed by about a year on average. He also said the burgeoning cubesat industry is being driven more by advances in the ability to cram big capabilities into small packages than by declining launch prices.

San Francisco-based startup Spire, meanwhile, turned to India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle for the Sept. 28 launch of four Lemur-2 cubesats, designed to provide weather and maritime situational awareness data. The U.S. government has a policy that discourages launches of U.S. commercial satellites aboard Indian rockets, but Spire — operating through broker Spaceflight — was able to get a waiver from the U.S. Department of State. Typically such waivers are granted only if comparable capacity is not available from U.S., European, Russian or Ukrainian rockets.

Chinese rockets are of course off limits to U.S. companies, while Indian vehicles are in a middle category — restricted, but not forbidden — owing to India’s refusal to sign a commercial launch accord with the U.S. government to ensure fair market-based pricing. Efforts to negotiate the accord began in 2005 as part of a much broader initiative to strengthen technology ties between the two countries but were abandoned in 2010.

But things are happening again. At a recent meeting in Washington, Samuel duPont, a director in the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) international trade and development office, said the government is reviewing the current policy on Indian rockets after being approached by unspecified U.S. satellite companies with complaints about a dearth of available launch services.

Not surprisingly, established and aspiring launch services providers are lining up in opposition to any U.S. policy shift. These companies fear India’s potential to flood the market with low-cost launch capacity, depriving them of business and investment capital.

Such concerns are legitimate — as they ponder a policy change, the USTR and other agencies involved must take a hard look at pricing, beginning with what Spire paid for its PSLV launch. Other factors, including the amount of capacity India can bring to the commercial market in any given year — this likely is very limited in the near term — also will be considered.

The right answer isn’t necessarily obvious, but the experiences of Planet Labs, Spire and others make a compelling argument for change. Certainly they take the wind out of assertions by some companies that there’s enough capacity available to serve the market. Help may well be on the way, but history suggests it’s unwise to bet on the arrival of a new rocket, especially one whose development is privately funded.

Besides, the best way to encourage the development of new rockets is to promote the market they are intended to serve. The latter should be the government’s overriding priority in any case, and if that is best served by opening up access to Indian rockets, so be it.