SAN FRANCISCO — Although NASA’s Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge was just announced in July, two firms that already were staking their fortunes on sending tiny satellites into orbit are working hard to capture the $2 million prize.

The most recent firm to reveal plans to send small satellites into space is NanoLauncher LLC, a cooperative venture that pairs SpaceWorks Commercial, a consulting firm based in Washington, with IHI Aerospace Ltd. of Tokyo. NanoLauncher plans to use existing technology including solid rocket motors developed by IHI Aerospace and decommissioned U.S. military aircraft to launch satellites weighing “a few tens of kilograms” into low Earth orbit, said A.C. Charania, president of SpaceWorks Commercial, a subsidiary of SpaceWorks Engineering of Atlanta.

Although initial plans for the NanoLauncher project have been presented at small-satellite conferences, many of the project’s details, including pricing, launch sites and payload capabilities, will not be revealed until 2011, Charania said. Currently, company officials are meeting with customers and evaluating potential U.S. ranges and spaceports, he added. Tentative plans call for suborbital testing of the new launchers in 2013, with orbital testing following in 2014 and paid launches in 2015, Charania said.

Prices have not been set, but NanoLauncher flights will not be less costly than sending small satellites into orbit as secondary payloads on commercial rockets, Charania said. The advantage of flying into orbit on NanoLauncher will be its responsiveness, Charania said. Customers may be willing to pay more because they can control the timing of their launch, he added.

Because NanoLauncher plans to use solid rocket motor technology developed by IHI Aerospace, company officials are meeting with U.S. government agencies to make sure the new venture does not encounter serious roadblocks related to import or export controls. “We are not exporting anything,” Charania said. Instead, the firm plans to import Japanese rocket technology and use it to launch U.S. payloads from U.S. launch sites, he said.

SpaceWorks Commercial and IHI Aerospace began working on the NanoLauncher concept several months before NASA announced plans as part of the space agency’s Centennial Challenge initiative to offer $2 million to the first company to conduct two successful cubesat launches in one week. Cubesats, the miniature satellites long popular among university researchers, weigh approximately 1 kilogram and measure roughly 10 centimeters on each side.

Another firm vying for that $2 million Centennial Challenge prize is Interorbital Systems of Mojave, Calif. In late November, Interorbital Systems conducted successful tests of its mobile launch unit and Common Propulsion Module, according to Chief Executive Randa Milliron. Seven of those Common Propulsion Modules form the company’s Neptune 45 nanosatellite rocket. Additional testing of the Common Propulsion Modules and rocket engines will be conducted in December, culminating in the first suborbital flight tests in late December or early January, Milliron said.

“We intend to use our first orbital launch as the first NanoSat Challenge launch,” Milliron said. “Depending upon how the contest is structured, we intend to compete for the prize with two launches during that same week, as required.”

Interorbital Systems has obtained waivers from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to conduct three suborbital flights near a dry lake bed north of Mojave. Company officials are working with the FAA to obtain licenses for subsequent orbital flights, Milliron said.

During suborbital flight tests, Interorbital plans to launch payloads built by students at Kentucky’s Morehead State University and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Morehead State and Naval Postgraduate School officials said they plan to use those suborbital launches to test components of the satellites they will launch on later orbital flights.

In all, 15 customers have paid $8,000 a piece for Interorbital’s TubeSat picosatellite kit and launch into orbit, Milliron said. Other customers for orbital flights include the University of California, Irvine; the University of Puerto Rico; the Brazilian Space Agency; Australia’s University of Sydney; and the United Kingdom’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory. In addition, Interorbital’s roster includes two teams competing to send a rover to the Moon as part of the Google Lunar X Prize competition: Synergy Moon, an international collaboration of space enthusiasts, filmmakers, artists and adventurers, and Stellar, a team comprised of robotics and space technology experts from universities and businesses in North Carolina.

“Everything is on track here,” Milliron said. Twenty additional teams are in various stages of arranging financing to pay for orbital flights on Interorbital rockets, she added. These additional customers include academic, arts, private sector, military and corporate groups from the U.S., Peru, Mexico, Germany, Vietnam, Pakistan, New Zealand, the Dominican Republic, Holland and France.

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...