Planet Dove 2 satellite launch
A 2013 version of the Earth-imaging Dove satellites that San Francisco-based Planet (which started out as Cosmogia) continues to launch any which way it can. Credit: Planet

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF. —  Launch companies that focus primarily on sending large spacecraft into orbit are modifying their business plans to serve customers in the rapidly growing small satellite market, according to a panel of experts speaking at the Small Satellite Symposium here Feb. 7.

SpaceX, for example, is exploring ways to make it easier to launch multiple clusters of small satellites into low Earth orbit on its Falcon 9 rockets. “We are working on the model where we have multiple missions dedicated to flying secondary payloads,” said Jonathan Hofeller, SpaceX commercial sales vice president. “As we get the cost down and the routine schedule nailed down, this will be a much better opportunity for small satellites to get to orbit.”

United Launch Alliance plans to make room for small satellites on future launches with ESPA rideshare adapters for its Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets. The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapters are designed to hold six satellites weighing 181 kilograms or less. Similarly, ULA is working with Tyvak Nanosatellite Systems to integrate 24 cubesats on each Atlas 5 missions, said Mark Schultz, United Launch Alliance rideshare program manager. And ULA wants to begin dual manifesting missions, which could mean matching small satellites with primary missions, he added.

Russia’s Glavkosmos intends to expand the number of small satellites it flies on Soyuz-2 commercial launches. In 2017 and 2018, Glavkosmos will launch 100 cubesats and microsatellites, said Vsevlod Kryukowskiy, Glavkosmos launch program director.

Arianespace, meanwhile, can offer rides for some small satellites on its Ariane 5, Soyuz launches from French Guyana and Vega rocket, but the company will be able to launch more small satellites when it begins flying its Vega C rocket in 2019 and its future lightweight version of the Ariane 6 rocket, known as 6-2, said Serge Chartoi, the Arianespace sales director who helps commercial customers find rides to destinations other than geostationary orbit.

Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries plans to lower the cost of H-2A launches by mass producing rockets. The firm also seeking to attract small satellite customers by dramatically reducing the amount of time customers wait between signing a contract and launching a satellite, said Ryo Nakamura, Mitsubishi business development director.

Small satellites have been traveling into orbit as secondary payloads on large rockets for years. ULA, for example, has launched 62 cubesats and six ESPA-class payloads to date, Schultz said. Later this year, SpaceX plans to launch a dedicated Falcon 9 rideshare mission for Spaceflight Inc.

What’s changing now is that important customers like the U.S. Air Force and NASA are beginning to tell their U.S. launch providers to make room for small satellites on their flights. At the same time, the launch market is becoming increasingly competitive, which makes rocket companies look for ways to profit from a rocket’s entire lifting capacity instead of wasting the portion that the primary launch customer doesn’t need.

SpaceX introduced much of that competition to the market with its Falcon 9. Hofeller said SpaceX will further reduce launch costs with reusable boosters. Now, there is more demand for rockets than available supply, but “when we can use the launch vehicles multiple times, there will be a whole fleet of vehicles standing by,” he said.

Even as large rockets make more room for them, satellite builders are eagerly waiting new small launch vehicles scheduled to begin flying in the next few years. Virgin Galactic is developing an air-launched rocket to begin lofting 300 kilograms into a sun synchronous low Earth orbit in 2020.

Small rockets will offer customers a number of advantages, like the ability to get to orbit quickly and to select the optimal orbital inclination, said Barry Matsumori, Virgin Galactic senior vice president business development and advanced concepts responsiveness.


Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...