LAUREL, Md. — After struggling for years to hitch rides to orbit, companies and organizations developing small satellites now say it’s easier for them to pick and choose from a growing number of launch options.

That growth in launch options, including both the development of new dedicated smallsat launch vehicles and increased availability of secondary payloads on larger launch vehicles, is helping companies with plans to launch constellations of hundreds of satellites in the next several years.

“The good news for us is that the launch landscape has drastically changed,” said Jenny Barna, launch manager for smallsat developer Spire, during a presentation at the Small Payload Rideshare Symposium at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory here June 9.

“There are so many opportunities to ride as secondaries, to orbits that we like, that I can’t answer the phone all the time,” she added. “I can be relatively choosy. It’s really extraordinary how many opportunities there are.”

San Francisco-based Spire plans to deploy a constellation of cubesats in low Earth orbit to collect weather data through GPS radio occultation and to track maritime traffic. Barna said the company plans to launch its first 20 to 25 satellites by the end of the year, and have 125 in orbit by the end of 2017.

Planet Labs, another San Francisco company developing a constellation of Earth imaging satellites, said its use of cubesats and standardized satellite deployers has made it easier to arrange launches, sometimes on short notice.

“One of the beauties of the cubesat standard is that there can be a last-minute switch: from the launch vehicle’s perspective, it doesn’t matter what’s inside the deployer,” said Mike Safyan, director of launch and regulatory affairs for Planet Labs. “There’s been some last-minute opportunities that we’ve been able to take advantage of because we’re using the cubesat form factor.”

Planet Labs has also taken advantage of another approach to launching satellites, through the International Space Station. NanoRacks, the Houston company that provides smallsat launch services via the ISS, has deployed 64 satellites to date, with another 16 on the station awaiting deployment, said Rich Pournelle, the company’s senior vice president for business development.

Japan’s Kibo module on the ISS is equipped to deploy cubesats. Credit: NASA
Japan’s Kibo module on the ISS is equipped to deploy cubesats. Credit: NASA

NanoRacks has a backlog of 99 cubesats awaiting launch, as well as three larger microsatellites that will use a new deployment system that will go to the station later this year. Pournelle credits that demand to the series of ISS resupply flights that can carry satellites there for later deployment. “The station is not in an orbit you would pick, but it exists, and you have a regular supply chain to it,” he said.

Other launch providers are creating additional smallsat launch opportunities. Clay Mowry, president of Arianespace Inc., said the company’s Vega small launch vehicle has generated interest, with ten launches ordered to date. “It’s turned out to be a popular rocket,” he said, despite initial skepticism about demand for it. “We timed the market just right.”

SpaceX, which retired its Falcon 1 small launch vehicle several years ago, is still interested in launching smallsats. Jonathan Hofeller, director of business development at SpaceX, said the company is considering “dedicated rideshare” launches of its Falcon 9 carrying a collection of smallsats that would ordinarily fly as secondary payloads on other launches.

“We’re trying to push a new normal, in some sense, where we can foster missions that are dedicated to secondary payloads,” he said. SpaceX would likely work with a third party to aggregate the individual satellites for launch on those missions. The first of those could launch as soon as 2017, he said, increasing to as many as three such missions a year by the end of the decade.

This growth in both launch opportunities, and demand for them, does create some challenges. “We’ve got to standardize the approach” for integrating smallsats onto launch vehicles, said Mowry. That could mean, he said, a “standard set of boxes” on each launch that accommodate satellites if available, or mass simulators if not.

Some also argued for greater coordination between smallsat developers seeking rides and both launch providers and primary customers. That’s particularly true for government organizations that may have policies for accommodating secondary payloads but concerns about including them on critical national security missions.

“The rideshare community is a little disjointed,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Jason Mello, with the Office of Space Launch of the National Reconnaissance Office. “There needs to be a tightknit partnership with the community.”

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...