Spaceflight Services Wants To Be Expedia for Small-satellite Launches

by

SAN FRANCISCO — To serve customers seeking to send small satellites into orbit, Seattle-based Spaceflight Services is teaming with Innovative Space Logistics BV of Delft, Netherlands, to create a one-stop shop for secondary payloads.

“We are brokering excess capacity on launch vehicles with the goal of stimulating the development and launch of small satellites,” Jason Andrews, president and chief executive of Spaceflight Services, said. “We will be the Expedia for small satellites,” he added, referring to the popular U.S. website that helps travelers search for low-cost airfares.

Under terms of the agreement announced Jan. 17, Spaceflight Services will take the lead in identifying launch opportunities for U.S. customers and integrating payloads on U.S. launch vehicles. Innovative Space Logistics, also known as ISILaunch Services, will be responsible for serving customers outside the United States and for integrating payloads on non-U.S. launch vehicles. Together, the two firms will help government and commercial customers find space for their payloads on commercial orbital or suborbital flights, Andrews said.

Andrews, who is also the president and chief executive of Seattle-based Andrews Space, established Spaceflight Services in 2009 to help his aerospace customers gain access to orbit. In April, Spaceflight Services announced an agreement with Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Corp. to manifest payloads on SpaceX Falcon 9 launches. The latest teaming agreement with Innovative Space Logistics is designed to expand the number of flight opportunities Spaceflight Services can offer customers, Andrews said.

Spaceflight Services plans to send its first small satellites into orbit in late 2011 or early 2012, Andrews said.

Similarly, ISILaunch Services expects the partnership to improve its ability to find rides into orbit for small satellites and to reduce costs, said Abe Bonnema, ISILaunch Services managing director. By working together, ISILaunch Services and Spaceflight Services can increase the number of payloads included in clusters of small satellites. By including more cubesats, microsatellites or nanosatellites in each cluster, the two firms can reduce launch costs for customers and trim their own cost of handling each payload, Bonnema said.

In 2009, ISILaunch Services was created by Dutch parent company Innovative Solutions in Space to broaden access to orbit for small satellite missions. In September 2009, the company helped to send four cubesats into orbit on India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. For future launches, ISILaunch Services is in negotiations with Russian launch providers to send payloads into orbit on Soyuz, Dnepr and Shtil rockets, Bonnema said.

Initially, ISILaunch Services and Spaceflight Services will offer launch opportunities for payloads ranging in size from 1-kilogram cubesats to 180-kilogram satellites, which fit in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA), a device created by the U.S. Air Force to deploy six small satellites in addition to the primary payload flying on United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 or Delta 4 rockets. In the future, the partners also may seek opportunities to launch secondary payloads as large as 300 kilograms, Andrews said.

On its website, Spaceflight Services announced plans to charge customers $795,000 for a triple cubesat launch into geosynchronous transfer orbit and $995,000 to low lunar orbit. For ESPA-class satellites, a ride into geosynchronous transfer orbit would cost $13.95 million and a ride to low lunar orbit would carry a $24.5 million price tag.

While those launch prices are significantly higher than the $50,000 cubesat launch costs often cited by university research teams, Andrews said his company has little room to lower prices. “We pay a fee to the launch service providers and we need to cover our costs,” he said. “This market is still developing and we need to charge reasonable prices to deliver routine, reliable space access.”

What’s more, the cubesat business is changing, Andrews said. Increasingly, cubesats are being used by government organizations and aerospace prime contractors. “While those prices might be a stretch for universities, they are affordable for government customers seeking to reduce risk on major programs,” he said.

For payloads destined for lunar orbit, Spaceflight Services plans to launch satellites in early 2014 on one of the missions competing to win $30 million in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. Andrews Space is part of the Rocket City Space Pioneers, a team led by Dynetics Corp. of Huntsville, Ala. Andrews Space is responsible for building the team’s lunar rover as well as a space tug to transport the lunar lander and secondary payloads into low lunar orbit. The Rocket City Space Pioneers was one of three teams selected Dec. 20 by NASA to supply testing data on its lunar mission flight components to the space agency as part of the Innovative Lunar Data Demonstration, a project managed by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.