The SmallSat Launcher War


Over the last decade or so the definition of what a ‘small satellite’ is has ballooned beyond the original cubesat design specification to satellites of 50 or 100 kg. Today a ‘smallsat’ is defined far more around the cost, and sometimes the technologies used, than the size and shape of the box that goes into orbit.

There are now more than fifty companies working on launch vehicles dedicated to lifting these small satellites into orbit, and while nobody really expects all of those to survive the next few years, it’s going to be an interesting time in the launcher market. Because I have a sneaking suspicion that Jeff Bezos’ statement that “there’s not that much interesting about cubesats” may well turn out to be the twenty first century’s “nobody needs more than 640kb,” and it’s possible that everybody is wrong about how many of the launcher companies will survive in the long term.

Building Smaller Satellites

Small satellite builders are using a lot more off the shelf technology than the old school aerospace companies. While that inevitably means more on-orbit failures, the cost of production of a small satellite is so much lower than a traditionally sized payload that it’s actually an acceptable trade off. Off the shelf technology also means that the barriers to entry to building a satellite are considerably lower and development times that much shorter.

Planet Labs Dove 2 Satellite
Planet Labs Dove 2 Satellite

In an industry that typically takes decades to build and launch a satellite the ‘new space’ companies like Planet Labs who, starting in a garage, have built a constellation of over 150 Earth observation satellites in five years, comes as a serious disruption.

When 26 of the Planet Labs “Dove” smallsats were destroyed  in October 2014, with the loss of the Antares Orb-3 mission, the company built several replacement satellites, and had them tested and delivered to NASA in just nine days. Those satellites were successfully launched in January 2015 on board a SpaceX Falcon 9. That sort of turnaround time is industry breaking, and the model of how launches are bought and sold will have to change to accommodate payloads built on much shorter timelines. The typical two to three year timeline from contract to launch, used by most traditional operators launching to GEO will not work for most of the new space companies.

Making Launchers More Available

Launch of a PSLV by the Indian Space Research Organization
Launch of a PSLV by the Indian Space Research Organization. The PSLV is scheduled to launch 104 satellites on 15th Feb, 88 of them will belong to Planet Labs.

The recent availability of low cost piggy-back opportunities on board medium, and heavy-lift launch vehicles, has attracted small satellite payloads in rapidly growing numbers. But right now most, if not all, small satellites are launched as secondary payloads to larger, and far more expensive, satellites.

There are still unused capacity on board those heavy launchers, so the problem is absolutely not launch availability, at least not yet. The problem for most small satellite builders is whether the launches happen when they expect, and the limited choice as to final orbit for their payloads.

However while launch availability isn’t a problem right now, it may well become a problem soon as the availability of Falcon 9 secondary payload opportunities dry up. Just over two years ago now Elon Musk walked on stage and announced that SpaceX was opening a Seattle office dedicated to designing and building the 4,000 small satellites that will make up a Low Earth Orbit constellation that will provide an Internet connection anywhere on the planet, and as a byproduct, provide funding to support the SpaceX core mission, to go to Mars.

Building Constellations of Satellites

You might argue that satellite broadband already exists, and isn’t particularly profitable. You’re right. It does, and isn’t. But the satellite constellation Musk is building is somewhat different. Current satellite networks are based around geostationary satellites in high Earth orbit, with correspondingly long communication delays, and a round trip latency of around 600 ms. In contrast Musk’s satellite constellation will be in much lower orbits, with altitudes ranging from 715 miles to 823 miles, and much smaller latencies of between 25 and 35ms, similar to existing ground-based networks.

Keynote at the 2017 SmallSat Symposium shows a projection of constellations put into orbit. This photo was tweeted by Erik Franks
Keynote at the 2017 SmallSat Symposium shows a projection of constellations put into orbit. This photo was tweeted by Erik Franks

Musk projects that, while ‘last mile’ connection for most people will still be fibre, the SpaceX satellites will be able to handle 50% of the global backhaul capacity, and they actually expect to pick up most of that traffic.

You might call that crazy except that Musk, and SpaceX, isn’t alone. They weren’t even first. OneWeb has similarly proposed a constellation of around 700 satellites, and while they have a slightly different approach they’re also chasing the profitable backhaul market. The 21 Soyuz launches they have purchased to put their constellation into orbit has been called “the biggest commercial rocket buy in history.”

If they, or SpaceX, are successful your Internet connection might well be carried over their satellites without you even knowing about it.

Are We Going to Space Today?

While the last few years have been filled with announcements, and testing, there have been few launches. But that’s about to change. At the tail end of last year Rocket Lab announced the completion of their launch complex built on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. The company’s two-stage Electron rocket is designed to carry payloads of up to 330 pounds (150 kilograms), and they’re on track for test flights early this year, with commercial launches starting in the second quarter. A single dedicated launch of the Electron is priced around $5.5 million, with the price to orbit for a 1U cubesat around $50,000 to a 500km sun synchronous orbit.

With four, possibly five, companies looking to make their first launches this year, including Rocket Labs and Virgin Galactic’s Launcher One, the competition to be first is heating up. At least at the moment, Rocket Labs looks to be winning the race to be the first commercial smallsat launcher. Although they still face heavy competition, and not just on scheduling. With commercial smallsat launch companies now entering the market from China, pricing too is also coming under pressure, with the price to orbit for a 1U cubesat potentially dropping to around $10,000.

Next Stop, the Moon?

Of the five Google Lunar X Prize finalists with secured launch contracts, two are riding as primary payloads onboard the new generation of small satellite launchers. With Moon Express, the only US based team to make it to the final, having signed the world’s first multi-mission lunar launch contract with Rocket Lab for 3 lunar missions. The first is scheduled to launch later this year, numbered amongst the first few launches of the new Electron rocket.

Whatever happens the next year, or possibly two, will be make or break for both the new launcher companies and the smallsat builders that want to ride with them. If they succeed the price of launching your own space program is going to drop dramatically, and bring the cost of having your own satellite into line with buying a mid-range car. At which point there’s probably a lot of people reading this that might well decide that having a satellite is cooler than having a car.



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