New contracts demonstrate continued strong demand for smallsat rideshare launch services

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WASHINGTON — A pair of new deals shows that, despite the growing number of small launch vehicles under development, demand from smallsat developers for rideshares on larger vehicles remains high.

NanoRacks announced Dec. 19 that it had signed up its first customer for rideshares on India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Spire, the San Francisco-based company operating a constellation of cubesats to collect weather data as well as track aircraft and ships, will launch four of its three-unit Lemur cubesats on a PSLV in March 2019 under a deal brokered by NanoRacks.

Houston-based NanoRacks is best known for handling launches of smallsats from the International Space Station, taking them to the station on cargo spacecraft for later deployment from the station or, in some cases, from the cargo spacecraft themselves after they depart the station. However, the company announced in August 2017 it was now offering space on PSLV launches, which can place satellites in polar orbits not accessible from the ISS.

“We pride ourselves on being launch-agnostic here at NanoRacks,” said Rich Pournelle, senior vice president for business development at NanoRacks, in a company statement. “Our focus is always on the customer, so if the customer needs a certain orbit, we are here to provide that opportunity to them. We’re much more than just an International Space Station company.”

Spire is not new to either NanoRacks or the PSLV. Spire has worked with NanoRacks in the past, with 37 of its more than 80 satellites to date launched from the ISS or Cygnus cargo spacecraft. Spire was the first, in November 2016, to deploy cubesats from a Cygnus cargo vehicle, after that spacecraft departed the ISS and moved into a higher orbit.

Spire has also launched 28 cubesats on several PSLV missions as secondary payloads. Most recently, four of the company’s cubesats were flown on a Nov. 29 PSLV launch, part of a group of 12 satellites whose launch was arranged by Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries.

“NanoRacks has been a great partner to Spire many times over,” Jenny Barna, Spire launch director, told SpaceNews. “They already have representatives in Europe and are working on setting up multiple facilities, including where Spire has offices and satellite production, so this was a great opportunity to collaborate on something that was a little different and benefits us both.”

Spire manufactures its satellites in Scotland. NanoRacks is working with a German company, Astro- und Feinwerktechnik Adlershof GmbH, to manufacture the deployers that will be used for the PSLV mission.

Spaceflight has also been busy signing up new customers for its rideshare services. The company announced Dec. 18 a contract with Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, or INPE, to launch that agency’s Amazonia-1 Earth observation satellite on a PSLV in mid-2020.

That contract stands out because of the size of the satellite, which weighs in at about 700 kilograms, the largest satellite for which Spaceflight has provided launch services. Amazonia-1 will be the primary payload on that mission, with Spaceflight using the remaining capacity on the PSLV for additional smallsat rideshare customers.

“We excel at complex launch missions like this, and it’s an honor to be selected to take INPE’s first Amazonia satellite to space,” said Melissa Wuerl, vice president of business development at Spaceflight, in a statement.

The contract comes two weeks after Spaceflight launched its first “dedicated rideshare” mission, called SSO-A, where it bought a Falcon 9 and used it to launch 64 smallsats for a variety of customers. The company said it was open to doing similar missions in the future.

SpaceX itself has suggested it’s interested in working with aggregators like Spaceflight for such rideshare missions. “I think it’s a great opportunity for these small satellites to get into orbit,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, during a panel discussion at the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris in September. “It turns out that these smallsat guys, unless you put many, many of them together, actually don’t have enough money to make a mission. So these aggregators are a huge help.”

Shotwell said she expected to launch two or three dedicated rideshare missions a year, and proposed doing such launches on a quarterly basis, flying on a set schedule. “Basically the train leaves the station at a specific time,” she said. “That could provide a pretty significant advantage to these microsatellites, whose timelines are by definition substantially less than big satellites.”

That could pose a challenge to developers of small launch vehicles, who have pitched their vehicles more on the ability to have control over the orbit and schedule for their customers rather than cost. That part of the industry is considered by many to already be saturated with vehicles either in service or expected to enter service in the next year or two.

Aggregators like NanoRacks and Spaceflight said they’re offering a range of rideshare services to meet the needs of their customers. “Our goal continues to be to provide the most rideshare options for customers to get their spacecraft into orbit — which ultimately benefits everyone on board,” Wuerl said.