stratolaunch pegasus
An illustration of Stratolaunch Systems' aircraft carrying three Orbital ATK Pegasus launch vehicles. Credit: Stratolaunch Systems

WASHINGTON — Advocates of small satellites argue that such systems could offer a much-need “layer of resiliency” for national security space applications for as little as one percent of current spending on such programs.

At a June 21 discussion about small satellites at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here, developers of launch systems for small satellites in particular argued for increased investment in smallsat technologies that could provide an insurance policy of sorts for larger military satellites in the event of a conflict.

The current architecture of military space systems “was really built in an uncontested environment,” said Steve Nixon, vice president for strategic development at Stratolaunch. “It’s no longer resilient to threats and probably cannot operate through a contested military environment.”

Advances in small satellite technology, he said, offered a solution to this problem. “What we’re proposing is adding a layer to our architecture of small satellites that duplicate the functions of what the rest of the architecture is doing,” he said. That layer, he said, could deter attacks in the first place, as well as provide a surge capability in the event of a crisis.

“We believe that for just one percent of what we spend on national security space, you could add this layer, both in terms of satellites and launch systems,” he said. “One percent is your insurance or deterrent capability that preserves the rest of your architecture. It seems like a really good deal.” He later said that cost could be up to two percent of overall national security space spending, which he estimated at $30 billion a year across defense and intelligence agencies.

Not surprisingly, Nixon believed that his company’s launch system could support that effort. Stratolaunch’s giant aircraft, rolled out of its hangar for the first time last month, was originally sized for a much larger launch vehicle. Growth in the small satellite market, though, has led the company to instead use the aircraft for smaller rockets, starting with the Pegasus XL from Orbital ATK.

Stratolaunch’s aircraft will be able to carry up to three Pegasus rockets on a single flight. “We think there might be very strong attraction to that kind of thing in the national security market,” he said. “With one aircraft sortie, you could basically launch an entire architecture of satellites into multiple planes, assuming each launch carries multiple satellites.”

Richard Dalbello, vice president of business development and government affairs for Virgin Galactic, agreed. His company is also developing an air-launch system, LauncherOne, for small satellites. He said that it can be responsive and operate with minimal ground infrastructure, taking everything it needs on the Boeing 747 aircraft that will serve as the launch platform.

Dalbello called for some “small” investment now “to start replicating the capabilities that we have with this new generation of capabilities so that if anything does happen, we have the ability to exercise that and have the capabilities the warfighter needs in an uninterrupted fashion.”

He added this “paradigm shift” to small, responsive launch could benefit commercial customers. An example, he said, is Planet, the company that operates a constellation of remote sensing cubesats, rapidly iterating through more than a dozen generations of that spacecraft design. “Planet, although they’re incredibly creative as a company, are still stuck in the old launch paradigm where they’re waiting for years to get up into space,” he said. “What we want to do is revolutionize that, and that will have direct implications for both DOD and the commercial sector.”

Concepts of responsive launch are not new, but other panelists at the event argued what has changed is that small satellites have become increasingly capable, allowing them to do more at relatively low costs. “What’s happened over the last decade or so is a shift towards being able to build really capable systems in really small volumes,” said William Jeffrey, chief executive of SRI International.

“In some cases, smallsats may seem to offer much less capability,” said Bhavya Lal of the Science and Technology Policy Institute. “But the interesting thing about smallsats, like any other disruptive innovation, is that they’re moving relentlessly up the capability curve.”

She cautioned, though, against getting caught up in the “hype” about smallsats and small launch vehicles, despite in some cases significant outside investment in those companies. “A lot of these capabilities are in the future,” she said. “There’s excitement in the community that I think we need to capture, but we just do need to know that investment is a sign not of success of the sector but of interest in the sector.”

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...