Small Satellite Launch Opportunities on the Rise

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SAN FRANCISCO — Launch opportunities for small satellites are multiplying rapidly as new and existing vehicles offer an expanding array of services.

For years, small-satellite program managers have been signing up to piggyback on U.S. government and commercial flights as well as Russian and Indian rockets. Now, program managers are eager to explore new opportunities to fly as secondary payloads on new launch vehicles, including the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Falcon 9, Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares and Lockheed Martin Athena. In addition, Virgin Galactic announced plans in July to develop an air-launched rocket to serve the small-satellite market and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is preparing to release cubesats in September from a robotic arm attached to the international space station’s Kibo experimental module.

Demand for launches has been growing steadily as people discover that small, low-cost spacecraft can handle missions previously performed by much larger satellites, said Jason Andrews, president and chief executive of Seattle-based Spaceflight Services Inc., a company established in 2009 to book rides for secondary payloads. The market also is broadening as customers seek rides for payloads of various sizes. A couple of years ago, most customers were either building one-kilogram cubesats or 180-kilogram payloads to fit on the secondary payload adapter designed for U.S. Air Force expendable launch vehicles. Now customers also are building six-unit and 12-unit cubesats as well as 20-kilogram and 40-kilogram satellites, Andrews said.

U.S. government agencies have provided many of the initial launch opportunities for cubesats. In 2009, NASA began soliciting cubesats to fly as auxiliary payloads on U.S. government missions. Since then, the space agency has found rides for nine cubesats and another 25 are scheduled to launch by the end of 2013, said Garrett Skrobot, launch services program mission manager at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. In addition, NASA officials plan to find rides for another 38 cubesats selected to participate in the space agency’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites, an effort to support universities by finding rides for their science and technology missions.

One of the firms NASA is contracting to carry those missions is SpaceX. The Hawthorne, Calif.-based company did not include cubesats on the May Falcon 9 flight that sent the Dragon capsule to dock with the international space station. However, SpaceX launched cubesats for the National Reconnaissance Agency and the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command in December 2010 and future Falcon 9 flights are expected to include cubesats and other small satellites. “SpaceX is committed to the small-satellite market,” said company spokeswoman Kirstin Brost. “We can accommodate most standard-size payloads.”

Orbital Sciences Corp. also is planning to launch cubesats from its Antares medium-lift rocket, which is scheduled to make its maiden voyage later this year as it prepares to make future cargo deliveries to the international space station. Three cubesats are manifested for the first Antares flight. In addition, Dulles, Va.-based Orbital offers rides for small satellites on its Pegasus air-launched rocket and its ground-launched Minotaur and Taurus rockets.

In 2014, Lockheed Martin plans to begin offering a rideshare service for 50-kilogram to 180-kilogram satellites and cubesats through its revived Athena rocket program. Denver-based Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services also has room for secondary payloads with a total mass of 1,000 kilograms on a commercial Atlas 5 flight headed to sun-synchronous orbit in 2014, spokesman Charles Manor said via email.

Spaceflight Inc., working with its sister company Andrews Space, developed an adapter for small payloads that is designed to fit on the Falcon 9 and Antares as well as United Launch Alliance Atlas and Delta rockets. The Spaceflight Secondary Payload System features five ports capable of carrying payloads weighing 300 kilograms or less. Spaceflight Inc. also is working with Virgin Galactic to integrate and launch spacecraft from its air-launched rocket, LauncherOne, which is scheduled to begin flying in 2016.

Because LauncherOne is designed specifically to serve the small-satellite market, it is likely to offer mission managers a chance to pick their optimal destination. That feature may be particularly attractive to U.S. Defense Department, U.S. National Science Foundation and NASA customers, said Jordi Puig-Suari, an aerospace engineering professor at California Polytechnic State University and one of the cubesat’s inventors. In addition, a dedicated small-satellite launcher could provide mission managers with the capability to launch missions quickly. “We just need to see how the costs break down,” Puig-Suari added.

The Defense Department’s Space Test Program, which was established in 1965 to provide transportation for research and technology spacecraft, is threatened with cancellation. The White House proposed an end to the program in its 2013 budget blueprint, but that proposal has met some congressional resistance. Even if the Space Test Program ends, the Air Force will continue to find rides for small research and technology satellites, Gen. William Shelton, who heads Air Force Space Command told members of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee in March. At that time, Shelton told lawmakers that Air Force officials were talking to other organizations about ways to provide services similar to those of the Space Test Program.

Those discussions have continued. “Air Force Space Command and other Department of Defense agencies will continue to leverage expendable launch vehicles to fly research and development missions as secondary payloads,” LaGina Jackson, spokeswoman for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Space Development and Test Directorate, said in a July 27 email. “Agencies also can procure dedicated small launch vehicles directly or through Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile Systems Center. In addition, research and development organizations can employ direct commercial rideshare opportunities as either an auxiliary payload on an existing commercial launch vehicle or as a hosted payload on the commercial satellite itself.”

 

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