Op-ed | Launching the Small-satellite Revolution

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Smaller and cheaper satellites are important for national security, for the space industry and for our planet. They also happen to be great investments.

Innovators in industry, academia and government have already proved that small satellites can be built quickly and affordably while still being capable of doing significant things. Such satellites are now in space sending back high-definition video, providing important climate data, helping to track the world’s maritime shipping assets, expanding our knowledge of the universe and helping test advanced technologies that will someday be used in the biggest satellites.

The data generated from these smaller, cheaper satellites will greatly benefit life on Earth, and could form the basis for a new layer of information infrastructure essential to our way of life. That new infrastructure will have to be constantly replenished, thus creating a persistent need for lower-priced small satellites and their accompanying launch vehicles.

To some, bullish projections of the small-satellite industry call to mind the unfulfilled visions of the 1990s. But thanks to dramatic improvements in processing power, data storage, camera technology, compression, solar array efficiency and propulsion, there are myriad reasons why today’s end result will be very different from yesterday’s. Armed with the knowledge that comes from living through the era of Teledesic and others, innovators are designing new businesses ready to serve demonstrated markets while competing with terrestrial competition. And equally importantly, these firms are attracting significant investment from a diverse range of savvy institutional and venture investors.

Although small satellites often cannot offer the same performance as larger spacecraft, they can generally be manufactured for orders of magnitude less cost. This has allowed designers to imagine constellations containing hundreds, if not thousands, of satellites that would otherwise be unaffordable. These constellations can provide new capabilities that such as persistent surveillance and latency-free satellite communications. They are, in short, proving the axiom that “quantity has a quality all of its own.”

In addition, smallsat ventures generally develop design, refresh and replenishment cycles that move much faster, meaning that operators have today’s technology in orbit rather than something a decade or more old — indeed, one company has already demonstrated iteration and relaunch cycles of under a month. These fast cycles create a virtuous cycle that may generate its own “Moore’s law” for space — or at least allow space to benefit from the Moore’s law already in action in terrestrial electronics. (Moore’s law says computer processing power will double about every two years.)

Spire satellite
Cubesat. Credit: Spire

Because of their relatively low capital requirements, small-satellite efforts are also tapping into types of financing that have historically not been available to the space community. Twenty years ago, the venture capital world was not particularly interested in space. Today, that is changing in a big way. Recently, small-satellite ventures have attracted investment from: Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Bessemer, Yuri Milner, Khosla, Innovation Endeavors, Vulcan, Asset Management Ventures, Capricorn, Lux, Rothrock, O’Reilly and many more. Further, these venture funds are now being complemented by larger entities — and correspondingly larger investments — from companies like Fidelity, Google, Qualcomm and Virgin Group.

The involvement of these new sources of capital is having an impact on all different sizes of space ventures, from the smallest startups to bigger players. The connection between the modern engines of growth in our economy — emanating in particular from Silicon Valley — and the newspace venture is hugely important. These new funders see the critical position of space in the future of our global information infrastructure, and they know that it is smart and important to be involved now.

Traditional space funding sources are getting involved as well. Increased threats in the space environment, coupled with budgetary realities, have led senior military officials to talk about the need for flexibility, resiliency and responsiveness. Small-satellite ventures are inherently well positioned to meet those needs at low cost.

Of course, satellites don’t make any money when they are sitting on the ground. Satellites need a way to get into space. And if the key selling points of small satellites are that they are fast, flexible and cheap, they need launch services that are just as fast, just as flexible and just as cheap. But thus far, small-satellite manufacturers have had to settle for just one or two of those three things.

Planet Labs Flock-1 satellites
Planet Labs satellites being released from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Companies like Skybox and Planet Labs have been able to get their satellites into space very affordably by flying as secondary payloads on larger launch vehicles, or by being deployed from the International Space Station. Both of those options are extremely attractive because they are extremely inexpensive. The downside is that with those secondary opportunities, you hardly get any choice regarding when or where you fly. If you are trying to build a global satellite constellation that provides commercially or scientifically valuable coverage, being subject to another operator’s orbital requirements just isn’t good enough.

For several years, Virgin Galactic has been observing these trends and watching as new milestones were achieved by smaller and smaller satellites. At the same time, the launch vehicle industry seemed to focus on rockets that were growing bigger and bigger, opening an appealing industry segment for a launcher tailored for lower-cost entries. As a result, we are developing a new launch vehicle we call LauncherOne that is designed specifically for satellites that weigh hundreds, not thousands, of kilograms.

This means that owners of satellites that flew as secondary payloads on a larger rocket can fly their same payloads to space as a primary payload on LauncherOne — so that they now get to specify the date, the launch site and the exact orbital parameters that they require. It’s somewhat like upgrading from a bus pass to Uber — while paying a very similar price to get where you want to go.

We’ve spent the past two years or so hard at work, designing this rocket and its launch services. Like SpaceShipTwo in our human spaceflight program, LauncherOne won’t be launched from a traditional launch pad on the ground. Instead, LauncherOne begins each mission by being carried up to high altitude by a carrier aircraft.

Launching in this way provides valuable freedom from fixed ground infrastructure. For decades government and commercial satellites have suffered long delays because there are traffic jams on the range, downrange radar tracking dishes that need repair, “boats in the box” or local weather fronts. With the flexibility that comes with air launch, a lot of those problems disappear.

A new approach to operations is also essential to building a responsive space capability. Having the ability to conduct a mission away from an existing range doesn’t help if you are tethered to a single range for flight termination systems. Using autonomous flight termination systems, coupled with a launch vehicle that’s carried out over the ocean before launch, allows for much simpler systems and operations — and simpler means cheaper and faster.

Because of technology and operations decisions like all of those, plus lessons that we’d learned from the SpaceShipTwo program — like low-cost, lightweight carbon composite structures — we’re now to the point where we are very confident we can build a very affordable rocket.

In conclusion, it is an exciting time for the small-satellite world. That excitement is predicted on technology and manufacturing trends that have been ongoing for years but are bearing fruit today in low-cost, rapid production. New sources of capital are flowing in, from big and small sources, enabling a range of new ventures. We believe that our LauncherOne will be well positioned to help these visionary companies achieve their goals, and strengthen the global information infrastructure that will be critical to our planet’s future.

George Whitesides is chief executive of Virgin Galactic.