Small Rocket Startups Eye Mega-constellation Opportunity

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WASHINGTON — A groundswell of interest in large constellations of small satellites, some backed by financial heavyweights, has buoyed the hopes of aspiring small rocket makers.

But during a panel discussion Feb. 4 here at the annual winter meeting hosted by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, there was some acknowledgment that established operators of big rockets can make enticing offers to launch these satellites by the dozen.

OneWeb CEO Greg Wyler said small rockets could free small-satellite owners from the second-class status they must settle for when flying as secondary payloads. Credit: o3b video video capture
OneWeb CEO Greg Wyler said small rockets could free small-satellite owners from the second-class status they must settle for when flying as secondary payloads. Credit: o3b video video capture

“On the technology side, smallsats are here,” said Greg Wyler, founder of OneWeb, which plans to deploy a constellation of some 650 low-orbiting broadband satellites weighing 125 kilograms each starting around 2017.

On Jan. 15, the company announced it had netted an investment of undisclosed value from Qualcomm, the San Diego-based chipmaker, and Virgin Group, parent of aspiring suborbital tourism liner and smallsat launcher Virgin Galactic.

Wyler, who spoke from Europe by cellphone, offered no new details about OneWeb, but had good things to say about the new crop of companies developing small rockets. These vehicles, he said, could free small-satellite owners from the second-class status they must settle for when flying as secondary payloads.

“Hitchhiking to orbit is a lot like hitchhiking to anywhere here on the surface of the planet,” Will Pomerantz, vice president for special products at Virgin Galactic, told the panel. “There’s usually a lot of rules about what you can and can’t do in the car, and you don’t always get to pick when you get picked up, what route you take, or where you get dropped off.”

Virgin Galactic is working on the expendable LauncherOne, an uncrewed rocket designed to boost about 100 kilograms to low Earth orbit and expected to be ready around 2016 — in time to launch OneWeb satellites.

In a roundabout way, LauncherOne development was sparked by a study Pomerantz led shortly after joining Virgin Galactic four years ago.

At the behest of Virgin Galactic investors — including Aabar Investments, the sovereign investment fund of Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Pomerantz said he began research in 2011 on what he was sure would prove to be a nonexistent small-satellite launch market. “I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong,” Pomerantz said.

But while some prospective customers are eager for the flexibility small launchers offer, “other customers [are] perfectly content to take advantages of the economies of scale that come with a massive deployment from a larger launch vehicle,” Pomerantz said.

Mass deployment might be the strategy SpaceX has in mind for its planned broadband constellation of electrically propelled satellites, another panelist speculated. Soon after announcing its plans for a 4,000-satellite constellation, SpaceX landed $1 billion in combined investment from Google and Fidelity Investments.

“I don’t have any insight into it, but I believe … the plane changes [for SpaceX’s satellites] would be accomplished using electric propulsion as another option to having dedicated smallsat launches,” said Tom Markusic, founder of Firefly Space Systems of Austin, Texas.

“The analyst at the investment bank is not the only one who studied Teledesic in business school. So did the CEO at the small-satellite launch company and the small satellite operator or manufacturer.”

Markusic, who worked at both SpaceX and Virgin Galactic before founding Firefly, is betting that not everybody will look at electric propulsion — a slow but fuel-efficient way to change a satellite’s altitude and inclination — as an alternative to dedicated small launchers.

Firefly’s planned Alpha vehicle, scheduled to begin flying around 2017, is designed to loft 400 kilograms to a roughly 350-kilometer low-inclination orbit for about $10 million a shot, Markusic said.

“A lot of constellations will want a multiplicity of planes, and I think the best way to approach deploying a system like that is not to toss a large vehicle loaded with dozens of satellites into one plane,” Markusic said. “What you’d rather do instead is incrementally populate each plane with a small number of satellites, get the system checked out, working, then make the dedicated launch of the heavy launcher to each of those planes.”

SpaceX spokesman John Taylor, reached by email Feb. 5, would not comment on SpaceX’s broadband launch strategy. The Hawthorne, California, company operates its own rockets and plans to demonstrate a heavy lifter sometime this year.

Addressing an elephant in the room, Pomerantz acknowledged that attempts in the late 1990s to deploy mega constellations, most famously the Teledesic broadband constellation backed by cellular pioneer Craig McCaw, never got off the ground, effectively consigning several would-be commercial rocket makers to a similar fate.

“The analyst at the investment bank is not the only one who studied Teledesic in business school,” Pomerantz said. “So did the CEO at the small-satellite launch company and the small satellite operator or manufacturer. Hopefully, from watching other peoples’ mistakes, we in industry have all become a little bit more savvy.”