Options grow for smallsats seeking secondary payload opportunities
LOGAN, Utah — As the number of small satellites seeking launch continues to grow, new opportunities are emerging fly those satellites as secondary payloads on other launches as well as tools to identify those opportunities.
The latest entrant in the field is Precious Payload, a company that seeks to provide a global reservation service for smallsat secondary payloads analogous to booking airline tickets or hotel rooms.
Andrey Maksimov, the company’s founder, said in an Aug. 6 interview that he decided to pursue the venture after talking with people developing smallsats who found it difficult and expensive to find accommodations for their spacecraft. “When I started to engage with different companies, I easily recognized that the bottleneck, the biggest problem for them, is actually to find a space launch,” he said.
Maksimov, who had been doing software development for mobile satellite operator Thuraya, decided to bring his expertise in information technology (IT) to the problem. “Coming from the IT market, I know there should be a tool that will allow investors, satellite operators and brokers to look at one place and reserve the flight for the payload,” he said.
His company’s initial offering is called Watch List, which obtains information on prospective payloads and matches it against flight opportunities it collects from various companies. Maksimov said Precious Payload has memoranda of understanding with 12 launch providers, but declined to close them.
In the longer term, he sees his company taking on a greater role in due diligence of potential payloads for launch providers. Precious Payload would require a fee from the satellite operator to perform that due diligence work, but refund it once a launch was arranged. Precious Payload would then take a commission from the launch provider.
Maksimov said his company can work with, rather than compete against, brokers of secondary payloads, providing flexibility in the form of alternative payloads or launch opportunities should a satellite or a launch suffer delays, which he said is a major issue for the industry today. “Rideshare is a mess,” he said.
More satellites, more options
While rideshare may be a mess, it remains an attractive option for the affordable launch of small satellites. Companies that offer such services are taking steps to launch more satellites and provide more payload opportunities.
Dutch company Innovative Solutions In Space (ISIS) arranged the largest single rideshare mission to date, an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) launch of 104 satellites in February. The Indian space agency ISRO was responsible for three Indian satellites on the launch, including the primary payload, while ISIS lined up the 101 other satellites.
Abe Bonnema of ISIS said in an Aug. 6 talk during the 31st Annual Conference on Small Satellites here that his company had talked with Indian officials last year about a launch, then scheduled for the end of last year, that had significant excess capacity. “They didn’t have bigger satellites to place on there, so they were actually looking for a whole bunch of cubesats,” he said.
Original plans, he said, called for launching 81 cubesats as secondary payloads on that launch. Later, he said, India changed the mission’s primary payload, freeing up additional capacity that ISIS filled with 20 more cubesats, as the launch slipped to February.
Bonnema said his company was able to fill that capacity in relatively short order thanks to relationships with both ISRO and customers. Of the 101 satellites, 88 came from Planet.
The large number of cubesats also posed a deployment challenge. “We had to deploy all 101 satellites in about 20 minutes,” he said. The release of the satellites was carefully choreographed, and assisted by a slow roll of the PSLV upper stage. “I have to give credit to the Indians for showcasing what they were really capable of with their upper stage.”
Other companies are taking advantage of the frequent rideshare opportunities on PSLV to diversify their offerings. NanoRacks announced Aug. 7 that it was planning to offer smallsat secondary payload opportunities on PSLV missions in cooperation with a German company, Astro- und Feinwerktechnik Adlershof.
NanoRacks has become known for providing smallsat launch opportunities from the International Space Station, with satellites delivered to the station on cargo missions for later deployment from the airlock on the Japanese module Kibo. While NanoRacks has deployed more than 170 satellites from the ISS, the station’s orbit makes it less desirable for some customers.
“We have received significant customer demand for polar orbits,” said Rich Pournelle, senior vice president of business development at NanoRacks, in a statement announcing the PSLV opportunity. Those orbits are not accessible from the ISS, but are on PSLV missions.
NanoRacks said it expects to start providing secondary payload services on PSLV missions in 2018, with three to four launches per year for satellites ranging from single-unit cubesats to microsatellites.