An artist's concept of Spaceflight's Sherpa tug, to launch late this year on SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base carrying 87 small satellites into low Earth orbit. Credit: Spaceflight Industries illustration.

PARIS — Small satellite manufacturer and launch service coordinator Spaceflight Industries on March 11 said it had raised some $20.74 million in equity from three venture-capital companies and would use the money to double its staff by the end of the year.

Spaceflight Industries CEO Jason Andrews. Credit: SpaceNews photo

Seattle-based Spaceflight said the new funding round, which was confirmed in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), brought its total funding to $27.5 million.

Spaceflight has several business lines related to small satellites but it has become well-known recently as the company that has arranged for 87 small spacecraft to be launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket later this year and then deployed into low Earth orbit from Spaceflight’s Sherpa carrier.

The launch, to occur from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, will set a record for the number of spacecraft deployed on a single flight. The company has organized the launch of 76 satellites previously, many through the Nanoracks dispenser operated from the International Space Station.

Spaceflight’s new funding came from RRE Venture Capital, Vulcan Capital and Razor’s Edge Ventures.

In a March 11 interview, Spaceflight Chief Executive Jason Andrews discussed his company’s near-term satellite-deployment plans. He stressed that his company is scrupulous in ensuring that the satellites it helps launch respect international guidelines calling for low-orbit spacecraft to deorbit within 25 years to prevent the buildup of orbital debris.

How is demand for small satellite launches shaping up? 

We have upcoming missions this year and in 2016 and 2017. Demand is such that we’re looking at potentially buying something as large as a Falcon 9 and doing a cluster mission. We would integrate dozens of spacecraft and take them to orbit.

The cheapest launch vehicle on the planet is around $40 million. All our customers have a budget of between $400,000 and $4 million to procure launch services.

We launch everything from a cubesat up to a 300-kilogram satellite for DLR, the German Aerospace Center. It’s possible we could go bigger, because as long as people go rideshare, that’s the market niche that we’re focused on.

How does the Sherpa tug operate?

The Falcon 9 will deploy the primary payload and then go to an orbit that’s different, but will meet the 25-year life limit for the satellites. We get deployed as the Sherpa. It’s a ring that we turn into spacecraft and have a series of dispensers that are mounts on each of the ports to deploy the 87 satellites.

On that mission we have a wide variety of nanosats, cubesats, microsats and minisats.

So the Sherpa carrier is deployed from the Falcon 9 and then governs its own deployment sequence?

Yes, we are a free-flyer. So SpaceX deploys two missions, the primary mission and then the Sherpa. And then we’re up there and we conduct the mission and transmit the deployment of all the missions. The deployments happen within an hour. We transmit the telemetry back and then the payloads go on their way.

Then the Sherpa is disposed of?

Yes. We are looking at future missions at hosting payloads on it. We have some really interesting missions out here in 2016 and 2017 that not only go to low Earth orbit but also into deep space and potentially the Moon.

Is it fair to say there is no real launch bottleneck now for small satellites, that opportunities abound?

Sort of. You can look on our website and see all the flight opportunities we have. One of the common themes is that if you want to go to a sun-synchronous orbit, and specifically a 10:30 sun-synchronous orbit, there are a lot of flight options.

But if you want to go to any other orbit, for weather, for Internet delivery or other applications, and if you want to go to other latitudes, there are not very many secondary payload opportunities. But specifically to sun-synchronous orbit, there is a regular launch availability.

Is the Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket still viewed as a reliable launch opportunity?

I am not sure if it’s available. There is so much customer uncertainty that customers are wary. They don’t know when it is going to fly.

What about India’s PSLV vehicle, which apparently is now open for U.S. commercial satellites?

We are vehicle agnostic. If there is a vehicle going, we’re talking to them — except for the Chinese because of political challenges. But for any country we can export spacecraft to, we are talking to them. As for PSLV, I can’t be specific but we are working the manifest to get payloads on there.

Is there any room on the October Atlas 5 launch of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo capsule to the space station?

I do not know. We are working with a primary payload for an Atlas launch in 2016 on manifesting payloads that would go into orbit or even deep space. But we’re not working on the one this year.

Who should be responsible for ensuring that all these small satellite owners have coordinated their radio frequencies, to the extent that they need to, and that they respect the 25-year-deorbit rule?

To launch from the United States you need a commercial launch license and part of that includes, I believe, an FCC approval or a NOAA approval. When we work with these secondary payloads, we need to get proof of that license as part of our submittal we give to the primary payload.

So some of that is done in the United States already. It may not be done for all foreign vehicles. I could be wrong but I think this is done in the U.S. I know that we vet that with our customers. Ultimately people are worried about hundreds or thousands of small satellites creating debris.

Ultimately it’s in our interest to follow best practices or we’re going to kill our own industry, and our own business. That’s why we’re so careful about the 25-year life limit and careful about making sure the satellite owners do have their licenses — whether for imaging or transmission — especially when you have new actors coming into the market who may not be aware of all the regulatory issues.

We can also help them with the export licenses — there is a whole lot of stuff we do to help them get through the process.

But are you going to verify that 87 frequency-coordination filings have been OK’d with the FCC?

In order to launch 87 satellites on one launch you have to standardize things. I’ll be honest: The world is changing very fast, and 87 satellites will be a new record but that doesn’t mean there won’t eventually be 150 satellites or even up from there.

One issue that came up at the ITU is the FCC’s licensing regime, which seems excessive to some small-satellite owners. 

I am not aware of any coordinated program to ask the FCC to review this. But it’s a lot to pay. I am not an expert, but maybe there could be sliding scale of fees depending on how much spectrum you were using. There are definitely ways to streamline it, and this is something that should be thought about.

I can imagine that they are trying to set a high bar so they only get serious people and avoid spectrum squatters. But there is probably some evolution that needs to happen in the licensing realm.


Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.