WASHINGTON — United Launch Alliance announced Nov. 19 it will carry as many as 24 cubesats on each launch of its Atlas 5 rocket beginning in mid-2017.

The initiative comes amid continued complaints from small-satellite companies and universities about a lack of timely and affordable access to space.

ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno. Credit: ULA video
ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno. Credit: ULA video

“There is a growing need for universities to have access and availability to launch their CubeSats and this program will transform the way these universities get to space by making space more affordable and accessible,” Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and chief executive, said in a statement.

About 160 cubesats launched last year worldwide, according to Bruno. Assuming the Atlas 5 launches 10 times year, Bruno said, ULA could launch as many as 240 per year as part of the new program.

ULA has launched 55 cubesats into orbit as secondary payloads to date, most recently on an Atlas 5 mission carrying a classified satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. The cubesats were deployed from a special adapter called the Aft Bulkhead Carrier attached to the vehicle’s upper stage.


The Aft Bulkhead Carrier will now become a standard part of the Atlas 5 offering, Bruno said.

“You won’t pay to put cubesat carriers on our rockets; you would have to pay to take them off,” Bruno said in a short video about the cubesat initiative. “This is going to change everything and completely open that world.”

Bruno made the cubesat announcement  at the University of Colorado, Boulder, which ULA said  will have a free slot for a cubesat in 2017. Other universities will be able to compete  in the coming year for up to six free slots on an upcoming launch.

“We want to be America’s ride to space for all cubesats,” said Chris Chavez, ULA’s director of community and government affairs.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.