Glavkosmos Soyuz smallsat launch
An artists's rendering of the Soyuz upper stage set ti deploy 72 small satellites during a July 14 mission. Credit: Glavkosmos

WASHINGTON — Russian company Glavkosmos is seeking to become a major player in the small satellite launch market, with plans to launch up to 120 satellites as secondary payloads on three Soyuz missions this year.

Glavkosmos, a subsidiary of Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, said June 14 that it will launch 72 small satellites as secondary payloads on the Soyuz-2.1a launch of the Kanopus-V-IK remote sensing satellite, scheduled for July 14 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Vsevolod Kryukovskiy, launch program director at Glavkosmos, said in a June 19 interview that the smallsat customers for that launch come from the United States, Germany, Japan, Canada, Norway and Russia. He declined to identify specific customers, although he said they include both companies and universities. The spacecraft range in size from single-unit cubesats up to a 120-kilogram microsatellite.

“We’ll do the most technically challenging cluster mission ever,” he said. The satellites will be deployed into three separate orbits, after which the rocket’s upper stage will perform a deorbit maneuver.

Kryukovskiy said Glavkosmos is also arranging the launch of secondary payloads on two Soyuz launches planned for December from the new Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East region. “We’ll have about 40 microsats that we’ll launch from Vostochny, and that will be the first international launch from this new Russian cosmodrome,” he said.

While many launch providers use brokers to arrange secondary payloads, Glavkosmos is working directly with most of its smallsat customers, Kryukovskiy said. “With most of our customers we have a direct contract, and we’re trying to avoid any brokers on the market,” he said. “According to our experience, it’s much easier to work directly.”

He noted, though, that Glavkosmos is working with Spaceflight, a Seattle-based company that brokers secondary payload opportunities, on a one-time basis for its upcoming launch. Glavkosmos is also working with a German company, ECM Space Technologies, to handle cubesat integration.

Glavkosmos plans additional smallsat launch opportunities beyond this year. In 2018, he said Glavkosmos expects to have rideshare opportunities on three Soyuz launches, two to sun-synchronous orbits and one to a highly elliptical orbit. He added he expects to have a similar number of launch opportunities in future years.

“We currently plan to do a smallsat cluster to sun-synchronous orbit every year,” he said. “This is a big market for the Soyuz, and we think this market is growing for us.”

Kryukovskiy said Glavkosmos considers its biggest competition India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which has launched a number of smallsats in the last few years. A PSLV launch in February placed a record 104 satellites in orbit, all but three of which were cubesats.

“We’re trying to beat PSLV. That’s our main target for the next couple of years,” he said. Glavkosmos believes it can offer more launch opportunities and a more reliable vehicle, although the PSLV has had more than 35 consecutive successful launches. Glavkosmos also offers a backup policy whereby if the launch a satellite is manifested on is delayed, that satellite can be shifted to another launch.

“Our price is more reasonable,” he added, but did not disclose the prices it charges for smallsat launches.

Kryukovskiy said Glavkosmos is also taking note of ongoing efforts to develop small launch vehicles designed to provide dedicated launches of smallsats. That has included discussions with Rocket Lab, the U.S.-New Zealand company developing the Electron small launch vehicle, details of which he said he could not discuss.

“We believe that, for sure, we are competitors in this market,” he said of small launchers. “But we believe that we could find a solution to work together.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...