Smallsat launch delays prompt push for greater standardization

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WASHINGTON — A study that found that every small satellite launched commercially in the last five years suffered delays is evidence of the need of greater standardization in payload accommodations so that smallsats can easily switch vehicles, one company argues.

The study, conducted by Bryce Space and Technology and released April 22, found that all 1,078 smallsats — defined as weighing less than 600 kilograms — launched commercially in the last five years suffered delays ranging from days to years for a variety of reasons.

The median launch delay for the smallsats included in the study is 128 days. A little more than 150 smallsats had delays of no more than two weeks, but a similar number suffered delays of at least one and a half years.

The fact that so many smallsats have suffered launch delays is not surprising. “We’ve always known anecdotally that launch moves to the right,” said Grant Bonin, vice president of business development at Spaceflight, which arranges launches of smallsats on a variety of rockets, in an April 28 interview. “What we hadn’t really done yet is attempt to quantify just how likely delays are.”

Spaceflight commissioned the Bryce study to both quantify the delays and identify their causes. “I think some of that data was eye-opening as well, because it reflects a different distribution of launch delay causes than what a lot of people might assume,” he said.

The survey found that 40% of delays were due to payloads, including those of the primary payload on launches where smallsats were flying as secondary payloads. Issues related to launch vehicles accounted for 34% of delays, but most of those were caused by launch vehicle development and manufacturing delays, rather that delays caused by vehicle anomalies. Most of the rest of the delays were due to administrative or programmatic issues, or changes in the International Space Station manifest for those smallsats being launched from the station.

Whatever the reason, delays can cause serious problems for many of Spaceflight’s customers. “The facts of life have always been that launches are delayed, and that can be extremely punishing on businesses who need satellites in space,” Bonin said. “A day of slip in launch is a day they’re not making money off the asset because it’s not in space.”

He argued that the fact that many delays are caused by primary payload or launch vehicles issues underscores the importance of having more standardized approaches to accommodating smallsats, so that they can be easily remanifested from one launch vehicle to another. “That’s something we can do months before launch, but we’re committed to the idea, with standardization, of decreasing that time significantly, to a matter of weeks,” he said.

Such standardization already exists for cubesats, most of which use deployers that can be easily moved from one launch vehicle to another. Spaceflight wants to try to extend standardization to larger smallsats. “Locking in the electrical interfaces, standardizing the mechanical interfaces, and standardizing how a spacecraft needs to be processed is really key,” he said.

One reason for delays that emerged since the Bryce report is linked to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Bonin said that several launch providers it works with, including Arianespace, the Indian Space Research Organisation and Rocket Lab, are encountering delays because of lockdowns that have halted launch activities.

It’s not clear when those launches will resume, although the New Zealand government backed down from its highest coronavirus alert level this week, allowing some increased business activity. He predicted a surge in launch activity once those providers can resume launches and address their backlog.

Demand for future launches, though, may be depressed. “With the customer base right now, we’re seeing a lot of people taking a deep breath and putting themselves on pause,” he said. Startups in particular are concerned about access to capital needed to expand their businesses, including developing and launching satellites.

“I think a lot of companies are just stopping and saying to themselves, ‘Survival is victory, so we’re going to try to ride this out and extend our runway as much as possible,’” he said. There will remain demand from companies in the midst of satellite deployment plans, as well as government customers in the U.S. and elsewhere. “You might see a shift in our customer portfolio a little bit.”

There will also likely be a shakeout not only among customers but also launch providers, given the large number of companies working on small launch vehicles. “But overall, we are bullish and optimistic about the industry bouncing back in a strong way,” he concluded.