PSLV launch June 23 2017
A Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, carrying a Cartosat-2 satellite and 30 secondary payloads, lifts off June 23 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in India. Credit: ISRO

LAUREL, Md. — Despite the ongoing development of a fleet of small launch vehicles, both launch providers and customers continue to see demand for flying small satellites as secondary payloads on larger rockets.

The latest example of rideshare launch services took place early June 23, with the launch of an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). That rocket, in addition to its primary payload of a Cartosat-2 imaging satellite, carried 30 small satellites from 15 countries as secondary payloads.

PSLV has emerged as a leading provider of rideshare services for smallsats, but it is not the only player. During a panel discussion at the annual Small Payload Rideshare Symposium at the Applied Physics Laboratory here June 14, representatives of several launch providers discussed ongoing plans to provide accommodations for secondary payloads.

Vsevolod Kryukovskiy, launch program director at Glavkosmos, said his company was planning to fly up to 120 smallsats on three Soyuz launches this year, including 72 on a Soyuz launch in July. He said in a later interview Glavkosmos will provide rideshares on three Soyuz missions in 2018, and in future years as well.

Arianespace is also looking at providing additional rideshare opportunities, said Stella Guillén, vice president of sales and marketing in the company’s Washington office. That includes the Small Satellites Mission Service (SSMS), dedicated launches of its Vega launch vehicle each carrying a cluster of small satellites. “If you’re a cubesat, we’ll work with you and our partners to put you on this mission,” she said.

The first SSMS mission is planned for late 2018 or early 2019, followed by one on the first launch of the upgraded Vega-C launch in late 2019. “We’re trying to repeat this mission every year, and hopefully twice a year in the future,” she said.

Arianespace is also offering secondary payload opportunities on a Europeanized Soyuz launch into a dawn-dusk sun-synchronous orbit planned for around the same time as the first SSMS mission, she said, as well as an Ariane 5 mission to geostationary transfer orbit in the second half of 2019.

The large number of rideshare opportunities, primarily on non-U.S. launch vehicles, has been critical to the growth of the smallsat market and companies like Spire. The company has relied on rideshare services to deploy its constellation of cubesats that provide weather data and ship tracking services, including eight on the latest PSLV launch.

Jenny Barna, launch manager at Spire, said at the symposium that despite the large number of commercial launches by U.S. and other vehicles, very few are going to low Earth orbits other than those sending spacecraft to the International Space Station. “There’s just not a huge market,” she said.

Spire has relied in particular on PSLV for deploying its constellation. “There’s no other reason, beyond opportunity, that we’re seeking foreign rideshares. It’s really just about opportunity, and it doesn’t exist in the U.S.,” she said. “Our entire product is reliant on foreign launch.”

There are efforts to increase the number of rideshare missions on U.S. launch vehicles. Spaceflight, which has brokered secondary payloads on PSLV and other foreign launch vehicles, has purchased a SpaceX Falcon 9 for a dedicated rideshare mission to sun-synchronous orbit, which company officials at the symposium is now planned for early 2018.

“We’re trying to provide more domestic launch capability for secondaries,” said Scott Schoneman of Spaceflight, noting that about one-third the value of that dedicated Falcon 9 launch is for U.S. government satellites that could not launch on foreign vehicles.

Into this market comes a new fleet of small launch vehicles under development. They include Electron, the vehicle developed by U.S.-New Zealand company Rocket Lab that made an initial test flight in May. The rocket failed to reach orbit, but the company still hailed the progress it made.

“During this maiden flight, everything worked nominally and really well off the pad and into [main engine cut off]. The second stage performed well in vacuum,” said Brad Schneider, executive vice president and general manager of U.S. operations for Rocket Lab, in a presentation at the symposium. He did not provide new details on the issues with the second stage that prevented the rocket from reaching orbit.

Schneider was optimistic about the company’s prospects, including carrying out launches at high rates. He said its launch range in New Zealand could support up to 120 launches a year, more than the number of orbital launches worldwide today. “The first flight that we had was a great indicator, at least at first blush, that we have a good opportunity for a long-term run,” he said.

Those offering rideshare services don’t appear concerned about any competition smaller vehicles will pose. “More competition, especially with the aggressive price points new entrants are pushing for, is probably good for the market from a commercial standpoint,” said Schoneman. “It will keep prices down, or at least in check.”

Barna noted that Spire’s strategy of launching four to eight cubesat-class spacecraft at a time means that the company will continue to be a rideshare customer, even on small launch vehicles. “Our lives won’t actually change that much, other than hopefully there will be a couple more opportunities next year, and maybe several more the following year,” she said. “Life will go on as a secondary.”

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...