Garrett Skrobot. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA is planning to request proposals later this year for the dedicated launch of very small satellites, a move that has received widespread but not universal support among developers of small launch vehicles.

The NASA Launch Services Program issued a draft request for proposals May 5 for a new effort called Venture Class Launch Services. In the current draft, NASA plans to launch 60 kilograms of “U-class” satellites, more widely known as cubesats, in either one or two dedicated launches to low Earth orbit in 2018.

Most cubesats today are launched as secondary payloads, including through NASA’s Cubesat Launch Initiative, which offers payload space on NASA or other U.S. government missions. Other cubesats are carried into orbit on cargo spacecraft and deployed from the International Space Station.

That approach, however, restricts the orbits cubesats can fly to and ties them to the launch schedule of the primary payload. As cubesats expand beyond their original niches in education and technology demonstration, spacecraft developers want more control over when they launch and what orbits they use.

“We’re looking to be able to find more dedicated launches for some of these missions that have more complex science,” said Garrett Skrobot, mission manager for NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program, during a May 11 media teleconference. “They are requiring not to be piggybacks any more.”

Skrobot didn’t give any specific examples of cubesat-sized spacecraft requiring specific orbits, but said both Earth and space science missions would likely have such requirements in the future. The payload for the mission this competition awards will be selected from a current backlog of about 50 missions the initiative has.

Artist‘s concept of Generation Orbit’s air-launched GOLauncher 2
Artist‘s concept of Generation Orbit’s air-launched GOLauncher 2

Venture Class Launch Services is not NASA’s first effort to line up dedicated launches for cubesats. In 2013, the agency awarded a $2.1 million contract to Atlanta-based Generation Orbit for the launch of 15 kilograms of cubesats under a program called NASA’s Enabling eXploration and Technology (NEXT). That launch is scheduled for 2016 using Generation Orbit’s GOLauncher 2 vehicle.

“We have seen through our market research that that is probably too small,” said Mark Wiese, head of the flight projects branch of NASA’s Launch Services Program, in the May 11 teleconference. Internal discussions, he said, suggested 25 kilograms might be a better “breakpoint” for a dedicated cubesat launch.

One example he cited to justify that larger satellite mass was NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission, which consists of eight satellites that each weigh about 25 kilograms. The eight CYGNSS satellites will be launched on a single Pegasus XL from Orbital ATK in 2016.

That payload mass, though, has raised questions among some developers of small launch vehicles. Those companies, working on launchers with payload capacities of up to a few hundred kilograms, believe that the 60-kilogram requirement is too small compared to the anticipated market of larger smallsats.

Others companies, though, are more enthusiastic about the NASA competition. “Rocket Lab will certainly pursue this. I think it is great that NASA sees the value of a small launcher,” said Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab Ltd., in a May 11 email.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck and the Electron rocket. Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab, a U.S.-headquartered company that does most of its work in New Zealand, is currently developing a small launch vehicle called Electron. It is designed to launch payloads of more than 100 kilograms, but Beck said he was not deterred by the 60-kilogram Venture Class requirement. “Although the payload is a little on the light side for us, ultimately I don’t feel it matters,” he said.

Wiese said larger launch vehicles are not excluded from the Venture Class competition. “If someone has a solution that can launch more than that,” he said of the 60-kilogram requirement, “it’s not precluding them.”

The Venture Class competition is, for now, a one-time “strategic investment” designed to support systems that can also be commercially viable. Wiese said he anticipates making more than one award by the end of the current fiscal year in September, assuming a final request for proposals is issued in June as NASA currently plans.

The Venture Class awards would also offer NASA an opportunity to gain insight into, and even help, small launch vehicle developers. “We’ve set up the milestones in this contract so we can kind of shadow the commercial providers’ development and attend their reviews in a mentor capacity,” Wiese said. “It gives us the time to understand this so we can be a smarter buyer when there’s a true science requirement.”

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...