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Virgin Galactic is developing LauncherOne, a dedicated smallsat launcher, and may be one of several companies pursuing a NASA contract for a single smallsat launch. (credit: Virgin Galactic)

New options for launching smallsats


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Over the last decade, and particularly in the last few years, small satellites have shown an increased potential to serve a variety of missions beyond their past roles as technology demonstration and educational missions. Smallsats, including very small CubeSats with masses of just a few kilograms, are now performing science missions, including monitoring space weather (see “CubeSats get big”, The Space Review, September 10, 2012). Earlier this year, Planet Labs, a startup backed by more than $10 million in investment, launched its first remote sensing smallsats, with plans to deploy a full constellation of such spacecraft as soon as this December (see “Smallsat constellations: the killer app?”, The Space Review, July 1, 2013).

“It’s that point in time where we need to start looking at this,” said Skrobot in regards to a dedicated nanosatellite launch vehicle.

However, those applications for smallsats are only of interest if the satellites can get into space in the first place. Launching smallsats affordably, reliably, and on schedule remains one of the major challenges for future use of small spacecraft, and over the last decade there have been several shifts in solutions to that issue. Several years ago, the smallsat community was placing its bets on dedicated small launch vehicles, like SpaceX’s Falcon 1. More recently, as SpaceX pulled the Falcon 1 from the market, citing limited interest, there’s been a move back to the use of secondary payload accommodations on larger launch vehicles (see “New opportunities for smallsat launches”, The Space Review, August 22, 2011). Now, the balance may be shifting again towards dedicated small launch vehicles and other non-traditional ways of launching satellites.

The NEXT step for smallsat launchers

This small shift back to dedicated launchers is illustrated by a new NASA solicitation for smallsat launch services. On August 7, NASA issued a request for proposals for the NASA Launch Services (NLS) Enabling eXploration & Technology, or NEXT, program. NEXT calls for purchasing one dedicated smallsat launch capable of placing at least 15 kilograms into a 425-kilometer orbit at an inclination of between 0 and 98 degrees. The selected mass is the equivalent of three “3U” CubeSats, spacecraft with dimensions of 30 by 10 by 10 centimeters and masses of no more than five kilograms.

“It’s that point in time where we need to start looking at this,” Garrett Skrobot of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center said in regards to a dedicated nanosatellite launch vehicle in a presentation August 11 at a CubeSat workshop at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. Unlike other NLS contracts, this vehicle won’t need to have a successful flight before being selected. “We’re looking at a high risk tolerance approach. The first one may go into the ocean. It’s high risk, and we’re going to go in knowing this.”

Companies have until September 9 to submit proposals for the NEXT RFP, and the winning company would carry out the launch by December 2016. Payment would be tied to a series of milestones, primarily in the form of several design and launch readiness reviews, with the final 20 percent reserved for the post-launch assessment report. The wining company would also be responsible for any launch range issues as well as getting a commercial launch license from the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

NEXT represents a new direction in NASA’s efforts to promote the development of dedicated smallsat launchers. Previously, NASA had sponsored a prize competition called the Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge, part of its Centennial Challenges prize program. That competition offered $3 million in prizes for vehicles that could launch a 1U CubeSats, weighing just one kilogram, into orbit and do it again within a week. However, NASA quietly canceled the competition last November, concluding that there was a lack of potential competitors not already involved in other government efforts to develop smallsat launchers, like the Army’s Soldier-Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space (SWORDS) vehicle and DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program (see “A prize competition fails to launch”, The Space Review, December 3, 2012).

NEXT is targeting a somewhat larger—and likely more useful—market, as a number of companies and organizations are developing 3U CubeSats for missions, rather than original, smaller 1U version. The value of the NEXT contract is also likely to be larger than the prize purse of the Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge as well. However, the purchase of a single launch is unlikely to do much to close the business case for dedicated smallsat launchers; the imprimatur of NASA effectively endorsing that vehicle may be of more long-term value than the dollar amount of the contract itself.

“We’re trying to make this the cheapest launch vehicle in the world, because we’ve gotten the sense that that is important you,” said Pomerantz.

One company that’s likely a leading contender for the NEXT contract is Virgin Galactic. While most of the attention Virgin Galactic has generated has been for its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, the company announced plans last year to develop a dedicated smallsat launch vehicle, LauncherOne. That system would use the same WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft as SpaceShipTwo, but replace the crewed suborbital vehicle with a two-stage expendable launcher, powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene engines the company is developing. The goal is a system that can place up to about 220 kilograms into low Earth orbit for less than $10 million per launch.

“We’re trying to make this the cheapest launch vehicle in the world, because we’ve gotten the sense that that is important you,” Virgin Galactic vice president Will Pomerantz said to an audience of smallsat developers at the AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites in Logan on August 13. He said the company has done hardware demonstrations of most of the critical subsystems of LauncherOne, with formal announcements of the progress of the vehicle’s development planned for later year. “We are on pace and on schedule to meet the goal of having our first test flights in calendar year 2015 and initial commercial availability in 2016,” he said.

Pomerantz didn’t say if Virgin Galactic would respond to the NEXT RFP, but several other small launch vehicle developers are expected to do so. One, though, would prefer a different approach than what NASA is taking. “If NASA was serious about helping encourage commercial business develop new dedicated launch services for small satellites under 100 pounds, they should consider adopting the COTS and CCDev approach that is working successfully for commercial cargo and commercial crew services to the ISS,” wrote John Olds, CEO of Generation Orbit, in a company blog post on August 10. Taking that same approach, including the use of fixed-price, milestone-based Space Act Agreements for two to three companies, would at least be more preferable to Olds than the previous prize competition. “A COTS-style program might be a more appropriate approach and the NASA investment at this level of payload would be modest—easily less than 1% of what they’ve spent on COTS and CCDev,” he said.

Launching via the ISS

With those dedicated small launchers still a few years off, CubeSats and other smallsats under development now need to usually hitch a ride to space as a secondary payload on the launch of a larger spacecraft. NASA has, in recent years, provided new opportunities through its CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI), which flies primarily educational and government-built smallsats as secondary payloads on NASA and other US government missions.

“It took a very long time to try and get CubeSats or P-PODS on a NASA vehicle,” said Skrobot, referring to the dispenser used to carry Cubesats as secondary payloads. The success of recent missions that carried CSLI payloads, including a NASA Delta II launch in October 2011 and an NRO mission last September, have opened up additional opportunities. Skrobot said 36 spacecraft are manifested for launch on upcoming NASA and military launches, with an equal number awaiting launch assignments.

Upcoming launches include the Operational Responsive Space (ORS) 3 mission, slated for launch on a Minotaur I from Virginia in October, and the third SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) cargo mission to the ISS, whose launch recently slipped to January 2014. Using CRS missions has been a little problematic for the program, Skrobot said, since sometimes there isn’t additional mass available on those missions to accommodate secondary payloads. “If there’s extra performance, they’ll let us have it,” he said, but that’s not always the case. CubeSats were bumped from the SpaceX CRS-2 mission in March, he said, because there wasn’t sufficient excess capacity on the mission.

“We do add some complexities most satellites aren’t used to,” Newswander said of launching from the ISS, referring to the station’s safety approval process.

As it turns out, those CRS and other cargo missions to the ISS might be a new avenue for launching smallsats. Last October, the ISS launched five CubeSats from the station’s Kibo module. A JAXA HTV cargo spacecraft brought the satellites to the station, which were then deployed from the Kibo module’s airlock. NanoRacks, a company that provides access to ISS laboratory facilities for experiments, help arrange the launch. A second set of Cubesats arrived at the ISS earlier this month, including two from smallsat developer NanoSatisfi (see “The Silicon Valley of space could be Silicon Valley”, The Space Review, July 29, 2013); those will be launched form the Kibo module in the coming weeks.

NASA is also examining using Kibo for the launch of somewhat larger smallsats. The Space Station Integrated Kinetic Launcher for Orbital Payload Systems, or SSIKLOPS (pronounced like “Cyclops”), is a payload adapter designed to accommodate satellites weighing up to 100 kilograms. “We’re trying to supplement or complement a lot of these different methods” of getting smallsats into orbit, said Daniel Newswander of the Johnson Space Center in a presentation at the smallsat conference.

Launching from the ISS offers some tradeoffs: the potential for a lower launch cost, but at the expense of complying with a more rigorous safety environment at the station. “We do add some complexities most satellites aren’t used to,” Newswander said. “Going through the International Space Station safety process can be laborious, it can be complicated, and it can be pricey, depending on what you’re trying to do.”

SSIKLOPS is currently manifested to launch next April on the SpaceX CRS-4 mission. That will carry two demonstration satellites, each weighing a little over 50 kilograms. SSIKLOPS will remain on the station for use for future small satellites.

If successful, SSIKLOPS will add to the growing range of capabilities for launching small satellites, and, along with existing secondary and proposed dedicated launch options, potentially reduce one of the biggest barriers to the greater use of smallsats: getting them into space.


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