The opportunities and challenges in the SmallSat launch market
The U.S. Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) has an ambitious and potentially game-changing goal: to provide medium-resolution imagery to dismounted soldiers within one to two minutes of when he or she files a request.
The problem is that the Kestrel Eye block 1 satellite—born out of a joint capability technology demonstration (JCTD)—has so far been unable to procure a ride to space to prove its viability.
“We are having great difficulty finding a ride to space for these satellites just to do the demonstration to validate the thesis we’re posturing,” said John London, SmallSat program manager with SMDC.
Although SmallSats have significantly lower costs and development times compared to larger satellites, launch vehicles are a different story. A typical launch vehicle could take months or years to procure and cost $40 to $50 million, according to London.
“The launch problem is the biggest one we have in coming up with new ways to exploit space,” he said. “It costs so much to put [a SmallSat] up there.”
The most viable option to date is to obtain a seat on a government-sponsored launch mission alongside a much larger payload, a process known as “ridesharing.” With rideshares, the secondary payloads are released after the primary payload is safely deployed.
The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the Air Force Operationally Responsive Space Office (ORS), and NASA have all implemented rideshare programs, but demand is exceeding availability.
The NRO’s CubeSat Program, for example, has grown steadily since it began in 2007. In 2012, the NRO launched 11 CubeSats on NROL-36, five sponsored by NRO and six sponsored by NASA; and in December 2013, more than 48 CubeSats vied for 12 seats aboard the NROL-39 mission.
NASA’s CubeSat launch initiative holds an open competition every year, and those who win a ride to space have integration and launch costs covered by NASA—a coveted spot indeed, according to Dr. Charles Norton, principal technologist and program area manager with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The only drawback is the set launch dates, rendering the SmallSat providers subject to government timelines.
The SmallSat community is becoming much more collaborative, Norton said. One of the most recent examples of such widespread collaboration is the launch of 28 “Dove” CubeSats built by California-based start-up Planet Labs, which were deployed to NASA’s International Space Station (ISS), aboard an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket, in a launch facilitated by NanoRacks, a commercial entity managing operations on the ISS. Say that three times fast.
However, demand for launch spots aboard the ISS, which has a SmallSat Orbital Deployer, is surpassing the number of open spots according to several reports. NanoRacks, which has deployed 150 payloads since 2009, is beginning to market opportunities beyond the ISS.
Orbital Sciences and Skybox Imaging, another California-based SmallSat start-up, recently signed a commercial launch agreement to carry six of Skybox’s high-resolution imagery and video satellites to low-earth orbit in late 2015 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., via a Minotaur-C rocket.
The shift is clear: the SmallSat niche is primed for a sub-niche of its own in the form of commercial launch vehicles and opportunities.
“It exists in some form already and will continue to grow because the number of CubeSats in development and projects being proposed is growing very rapidly,” Norton said. “There is an opportunity for industry to establish really regular access to space.”
In addition to its Kestrel Eye JCTD, SMDC is pursuing another JCTD in the form of a low-cost SmallSat launch vehicle called Soldier-Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space (SWORDS). London said the goal is for the launch vehicle to have a price point that is on parallel with that of the payloads it will launch—about $1 to $1.5 million.
“We are attacking the problem in a different way,” London said. “We’re looking at using non-aerospace, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware to the maximum extent possible.”
Take for example a liquid oxygen valve, he said. Typically, if a developer needs one for a launch vehicle, he or she would have to go to industry and request one to be built as a specialty item. However, liquid oxygen valves are also used by the healthcare industry.
“So we would say, ‘OK, let’s look at those valves and see if there is a COTS, non-aerospace liquid oxygen valve that is produced in large numbers and therefore at a much lower cost and see if that would work in our application,’” London said.
He added that if this concept is proven it would represent a paradigm shift with the potential to benefit many stakeholders.
“It’s very challenging, but the promise if we are able to achieve this is extraordinary,” he said.
Featured image: United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41.