Small geostationary satellites, lunar orbit are part of evolving launch market
MOUNTAIN VIEW, California – The launch vehicle market is changing rapidly as satellites of various sizes seek transportation to both traditional and nontraditional orbits.
Spaceflight, the Seattle-based rideshare company, notes an increased focus on “more sizeable microsatellites,” Philip Bracken, Spaceflight engineering director, said Oct. 8 at the Satellite Innovation 2019 conference here. “We are seeing not just cubesats but some decent size microsatellites coming together.”
Some satellites being built and launched by communications constellation operators fall into this category. Bracken attributes the growing popularity of large microsatellites to propulsion systems and satellite buses that offer “a good mix of flexibility and capability.”
At the same time, some customers are opting for 150-kilogram or larger satellites while others favor cubesats, Bracken said. A lot of companies, for example, are testing technology and conducting initial studies with cubesats before launching larger spacecraft, he added.
In terms of orbital destinations, low and geostationary Earth orbit remain popular but customers also are seeking rides to the moon. “Trans Lunar Injection orbit is becoming an interesting market,” Bracken said. “We are seeing both small and large launch vehicles start to cater to that.” Demand is growing as NASA and government agencies around the world prepare to send missions to the moon, he added.
In addition, Bracken notes increased demand to send small communications satellites to geostationary orbit. That trend is prompting “some interesting trade studies on how to fly small and large satellites on both aggregated and dedicated missions out to the geostationary belt,” Bracken said. “This becomes especially interesting when it comes to some of the small launchers.”
Launch vehicles designed to send 1,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit “are very close to being able to get some of these satellites out towards the geostationary belt,” Bracken said. “But they may not be all the way there simply because of performance and size constraints on the rockets.”
In those cases, rideshare companies are joining forces with firms promising to move satellites between orbits. “Rideshare companies will work with final mile delivery services to get those small satellites to the geostationary belt,” Bracken said.
Roughly 140 small launch vehicles are being developed around the world, far outpacing current demand for about 90 launches per year worldwide, Bracken said. “This will be interesting in the next five years as the small launcher class of the launch vehicle market solidifies,” he added.
Overall, Bracken sees launch providers embracing diversification and aggregation, pointing to recent announcements by Arianespace and SpaceX to offer rideshares for small satellites.