Launching Smallsats And Herding Cats

by

LOGAN, Utah — Much of the recent attention devoted to small satellite launch opportunities has focused on the wave of dedicated launch vehicles under development. A presentation at the conference Aug. 10 by Carlos Niederstrasser and Warren Frick of Orbital ATK identified more than 20 such vehicles, from the existing Pegasus and Minotaur 1 to concepts still in the early design phase.

However, most of the presentations in the launch session of the conference were about secondary payload, or rideshare, opportunities. Hitching a ride to orbit on a larger launch vehicle remains the primary way most smallsats are launched today.

Some launches have taken launching smallsats to extremes. A Minotaur launch in November 2013 carried 31 smallsats from 20 different operators, noted Daniel Lim of TriSept Corp., which handled the integration of those smallsats for that launch. Doing so successfully requires careful planning to avoid disrupting the launch preparations for the primary payload.

“There are unique challenges that occur once you reach a certain threshold number of spacecraft,” he said, which he estimated to be between two and three dozen smallsats. “It’s harder than herding cats.”

Those challenges have not deterred Spaceflight Industries. The company is pressing ahead with plans to launch 87 smallsats on the first mission of its SHERPA payload adapter. That mission, company president and chief executive Jason Andrews said, is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California likely in the first quarter of 2016, depending on when the rocket returns to flight. — Jeff Foust