MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — United Launch Alliance (ULA) engineers who have worked for years to develop a suite of hardware to send small satellites into orbit on Atlas 5 rockets and Delta 4 launchers are close to finalizing an agreement to include the first batch of small satellites on a commercial mission in 2013.

Although some relevant contracts have not yet been signed, the preliminary plan calls for nine small satellites to launch in 2013 on a Lockheed Commercial Launch Services Atlas 5 rocket, said Jake Szatkowski, small satellite project manager for United Launch Alliance. He declined to identify the primary mission for that Atlas rocket or the small satellites expected to accompany it, saying only that the group of secondary payloads is likely to include spacecraft built by commercial and government customers.

Szatkowski, who presented details on ULA’s ridesharing program July 28 at the NewSpace 2011 conference here, said the deal “will open a new low-cost secondary launch capability for small- to medium-class satellites.”

Denver-based ULA, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., and Chicago-based Boeing Co., provides Atlas and Delta space launch services for U.S. government customers. In addition, ULA officials have worked with government and industry partners in recent years to develop a variety of tools to enable small payloads to piggyback on Atlas and Delta rockets. Those tools, known as rideshare adapters, can accommodate payloads ranging in weight from 10 to 5,000 kilogram payloads, Szatkowski said.

ULA provides customers with information about the capability of various rideshare adapters, Szatkowski said. For example, if a customer is seeking to launch a 900-kilogram satellite into a circular, sun-synchronous, polar orbit, ULA engineers would figure out how to marry that payload with an upcoming Atlas or Delta mission, he said.

The 2013 Atlas 5 mission expected to include secondary payloads is slated to carry eight satellites weighing approximately 10 kilograms apiece and a single 180-kilogram spacecraft, Szatkowski said. Each of the 10-kilogram satellites will be housed in a canister called a Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer, or P-POD, a spring-loaded device developed at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. All eight P-PODs will be housed in a payload adapter developed at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. The Naval Postgraduate School CubeSat Launcher is designed to fit multiple P-PODs into one slot of an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter, a device developed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory to deploy six small satellites on Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets.

Many additional types of ridesharing opportunities for secondary payloads are on the horizon, Szatkowski said. While ULA typically launches Atlas and Delta rockets into low Earth orbit or geostationary orbit, company engineers have developed an electric, third-stage motor designed to send small spacecraft far from the primary payload’s destination. The third-stage motor could propel small satellites on Earth escape trajectories toward the Moon, near-Earth objects or Mars. Szatkowski said that capability may be attractive to teams competing for $30 million in awards as part of the Google Lunar X Prize, a race to send the first commercial spacecraft to the Moon.

ULA’s rideshare program is designed to offer low-cost launch opportunities for small satellites. Customers who send small satellites into orbit on government missions typically will pay only the additional cost incurred to integrate their payload onto the launch vehicle, Szatkowski said. Company officials also are striving to keep costs low for secondary payloads sent into orbit on commercial missions. It will cost ULA roughly $2 million to place nine additional payloads on the 2013 Atlas flight, he added.

ULA plans to offer several different types of ridesharing opportunities in the next few years on both commercial and government missions. As part of a NASA mission scheduled for launch in approximately a year-and-a-half, ULA will give customers a chance to send a 2,270-kilogram satellite into orbit inside a 4-meter Atlas 5 or Delta 4, Szatkowski said.

ULA has previously flagged NASA’s upcoming launches of the Landsat Data Continuity Mission and its newest Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System spacecraft as good rideshare opportunities.

In addition, rockets scheduled to carry the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellites into geosynchronous orbit during the next few years could be equipped with P-PODs or Aft Bulkhead Carriers, which are adapters designed to accommodate secondary payloads weighing 77 kilograms on Atlas 5 rockets. Similarly, rockets launching GPS navigation satellites into medium Earth orbit during the next decade could be fitted with several different types of secondary payload adapters, including P-PODs, cantilevered cargo bays known as C-Adapter Platforms that can hold 45-kilogram satellites, Aft Bulkhead Carriers, Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapters for 180-kilogram satellites or Integrated Payload Carriers, which are circular cargo storage areas with a diameter of 137 centimeters that can hold payloads weighing 910 kilograms.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...