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Falcon 1 launch
Many in the smallsat community pinned their hopes for improved space access on the Falcon 1, yet a lack of orders forced SpaceX to shelve the small rocket. (credit: SpaceX)

New opportunities for smallsat launches

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In recent years there’s been a surge in interest in small satellites, or smallsats: spacecraft that typically weigh no more than a few hundred kilograms, and often as small as a few kilograms. Advanced in technology make it possible to use these spacecraft for a widening range of applications, from remote sensing to asset tracking to flight testing hardware for use on future spacecraft, both large and small. At the very small end, one-kilogram CubeSats—so named because the satellites are cubes 10 centimeters on a side—have found a niche among universities, becoming a relatively inexpensive means of giving engineering studies hands-on experience with space hardware.

Greater adoption of smallsats by industry and government agencies alike faces a number of obstacles, none perhaps bigger than the challenge of getting those satellites into space in a responsive and cost-effective manner. For years smallsat developers had been forced to hitch a ride to space as secondary payloads on larger rockets, or pooling their resources to get rides on Russian rockets like the Cosmos and Dnepr. In recent years came the promise of dedicated low-cost smallsat launchers, especially by SpaceX. However, now there’s a swing back to the “rideshare” model of secondary payloads, but with twists that may greatly expand launch opportunities for smallsats.

Rideshares, dedicated and otherwise

For the last several years much of the smallsat community pinned its hopes for a revolution in space access on a single company: SpaceX. When the company was founded in 2002, its focus was on the smallsat market, offering the Falcon 1 rocket that could carry small satellites weighing up to several hundred kilograms into low Earth orbit for as little as $6 million, far less than even the repurposed ICBMs Russian firms were offering to launch smallsats. SpaceX advertised its services heavily at events like the Conference on Small Satellites, the leading annual conference on smallsats held every August on the campus of Utah State University in Logan.

“We’re looking into carrying P-PODs and ESPA rings, and whatever you can attach to an ESPA ring, on every [Falcon 9] flight,” SpaceX’s Doud said, referring to two types of smallsat payload adapters.

After an extended development effort, including failures to put payloads into orbit on its first three launches, the Falcon 1 finally successfully launched a demonstration payload in September 2008, and followed that with the launch of a Malaysian remote sensing smallsat, RazakSAT, in July 2009. However, the Falcon 1 has not flown since then, and plans to develop an enhanced version, the Falcon 1e, that could place 1,000 kilograms into LEO, have been set aside as the company has focused on development of the larger Falcon 9 and the Dragon spacecraft to transport cargo, and later crews, to and from the International Space Station.

Company officials said a lack of demand led them to shelve the Falcon 1. “We had the Falcon 1 offered for a lengthy period of time and could not securely manifest a sustainable amount to keep the product line going,” said Dustin Doud, business development manager at SpaceX, after a presentation at the 25th annual Conference on Small Satellites earlier this month. “We have promised to reevaluate that at the end of this year, and if we decide the market is viable, we will come back in and reintroduce the Falcon 1e.”

The lack of a small launch vehicle, though, doesn’t mean that SpaceX is ignoring the smallsat launch market. In his conference presentation, Doud outlined plans by SpaceX to offer secondary payload launch opportunities on its Falcon 9 rockets. SpaceX carried eight CubeSat-class satellites on its most recent Falcon 9 launch last December that was the first demonstration flight of its Dragon cargo spacecraft for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. On its next Falcon 9/Dragon COTS flight, tentatively scheduled for the end of November, SpaceX also plans to carry one or two smallsats for ORBCOMM, an operator of a LEO communications satellite system. (Confirming that the addition of the ORBCOMM payloads won’t affect the primary mission has been the main reason why NASA hasn’t given final approval for SpaceX’s proposal to combine its second and third COTS missions into a single flight.)

SpaceX plans to offer many more such rideshare opportunities on future Falcon 9 launches. Doud said the company planned to take advantage of two existing smallsat payload adapters to make it easier for both it and satellite developers to take advantage of those opportunities. One, the Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD)—the name refers to the fact it was developed at the California Polytechnic State University, or Cal Poly, in San Luis Obispo—is designed to accommodate CubeSats. The other, the EELV Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA), is a ring-shaped adapter originally developed for the Atlas V and Delta IV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) that can host several larger smallsats.

“We’re looking into carrying P-PODs and ESPA rings, and whatever you can attach to an ESPA ring, on every flight,” Doud said. “We feel that has a lot of potential to change this industry.” He added that, in addition to the ORBCOMM satellites SpaceX plans to launch on its next COTS flight, it plans to carry up to four P-PODs on the second through sixth launches under its Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA, the operational follow-on to its COTS agreement.

Doud said that SpaceX recently completed an internal study on the feasibility of flying secondary payloads. That effort also developed prices for flying those secondary payloads, which he disclosed in his presentation. A P-POD would cost between $200,000 and $325,000 for missions to LEO, or $350,000 to $575,000 for missions to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). An ESPA-class satellite weighing up to 180 kilograms would cost $4–5 million for LEO missions and $7–9 million for GTO missions, he said.

“Three or four years ago, we heard from this community that there were no rides,” NASA’s Skrobot said. “We took it upon ourselves to find those rides.”

Meanwhile, ATK and Lockheed Martin are taking a somewhat different approach to launching small satellites as secondary payloads. Last year the two companies announced plans to reintroduce and update the Athena family of small vehicles, which carried out several launches from 1995 through 2001. The Athena IIc will be similar to the original Athena II, with the major difference being the use of a new Castor 30 motor for the rocket’s third stage.

One of the first Athena IIc launches will be what the companies are calling a “Mission of Opportunity” in September 2013. On this launch, slated to take place from the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska, there will be no single large prime payload. Instead, the vehicle will carry several smaller spacecraft: a “dedicated mission for rideshare payloads”, as they put it in during a briefing about their plans during a side meeting at the smallsar conference. This approach is similar to what Russian company Kosmotras has done with the Dnepr rocket: a launch last week placed into orbit seven satellites, none weighing more than 300 kilograms.

The companies plan to fly these Missions of Opportunity annually in order to provide a regular series of launch opportunities for satellite developers. For the initial mission they are offering slots for satellites up to 110 kilograms for $10 million, increasing to $12.5 million on future missions. They expect to carry between four to nine satellites on the mission, depending on the mass of the satellites, as well as a number of P-PODs for CubeSats, priced at $250,000 each for the initial mission.

A major customer for these rideshare opportunities from SpaceX and ATK/Lockheed Martin will be NASA. The agency’s Launch Services Program created the Educational Launch of Nanosatellite (ELaNa) initiative to provide secondary payload opportunities specifically for student-built CubeSats. The first ELaNa mission took place earlier this year, when a P-POD carrying CubeSats from Montana State University, the University of Colorado, and Kentucky Space (a consortium of state universities) launched as a secondary payload on a Taurus XL rocket carrying NASA’s Glory satellite. Unfortunately, the satellites failed to reach orbit when the rocket’s payload fairing failed to separate.

“Three or four years ago, we heard from this community that there were no rides,” Garrett Skrobot of NASA’s Launch Services Program said in a presentation at the conference. “We took it upon ourselves to find those rides.”

Although the initial ELaNa launch failed to put the satellites into orbit, NASA is pressing ahead with flying several more P-PODs on launches carrying NASA payloads. This fall a Delta II carrying the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) weather satellite will fly several CubeSats, and more will be carried on Atlas V and Falcon 9 launches next year.

Skrobot said with these flight opportunities opening up, the challenge will be in ensuring there’s a supply of satellites ready to fly. “Those rides are now there for you guys to fly. But I need you guys to be there for me.”

Development of dedicated launchers

A disadvantage of the rideshare approach is that it puts the smallsat developer at the mercy of the larger primary payload. Secondary customers need to find a launch going to the right orbit that has enough excess capacity to accommodate a secondary payload. Delays in the primary payload’s readiness to fly will delay a launch, regardless of the status of the secondary payload. Given those issues, there’s still interest in some parts of the smallsat community in the development of dedicated smallsat launchers.

“We’re not in a huge rush on the LauncherOne development program, but should we make that decision, I think it will turn out to be a wise business decision,” said Virgin Galactic CEO Whitesides.

Much of the recent development in this area has been on the very small end of the market: vehicles optimized for carrying microsatellites (weighing on the order of 100 kilograms) or nanosatellites (on the order of 10 kilograms). At the smallsat conference, Takashi Arime of IHI Aerospace in Japan discussed his company’s plans to develop an air-launched system that would deploy a rocket from a cargo aircraft such as a C-130 or C-17, similar to the plans of now-defunct AirLaunch LLC several years ago. The three-stage solid-propellant rocket would place a payload of 100 to 200 kilograms into LEO.

There’s been some interest in smallsat launches from companies developing reusable suborbital vehicles for space tourism and research applications. XCOR Aerospace has proposed launching nanosatellites using an upper stage deployed from its Lynx vehicle, while Virgin Galactic is studying the development of a smallsat launcher, dubbed LauncherOne, that would be deployed from the same WhiteKnightTwo aircraft that will ferry the SpaceShipTwo vehicle aloft.

“Abstractly, it seems like a really good market,” Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides said at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Huntsville, Alabama, in May. However, he said the company is focused for now on completing development of SpaceShipTwo. “We’re not in a huge rush on the LauncherOne development program, but should we make that decision, I think it will turn out to be a wise business decision.”

Prize competitions may motivate others to get into the market at the very small end. Last year NASA announced the Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge as part of its Centennial Challenges prize program. The competition would offer $2 million to a vehicle capable of placing a single CubeSat into orbit and doing it again within a week. There’s been little public progress on the prize competition since its announcement last year, although NASA requested proposals earlier this year for an “allied organization” that would run the competition. Those proposals were due in early May, and a selection could be announced in the coming weeks, according to one source.

Separately, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) included in its fiscal year 2012 budget proposal a request for $5 million for a “Low Cost Access to Space Incentive”, a prize competition to promote the development of nanosatellite-class launchers. Like the NASA competition, this prize would go to the first non-government team to launch a single CubeSat, although in this case the launch system would have to be at least partially reusable. “This incentive is expected to increase the number of developers and operators focusing on the specific problem of reusable, low-cost, orbital space launch systems, and we believe it is of sufficient size to attract the investment and commitment of companies who are capable of winning the prize,” George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said during a hearing of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee in May.

Launch “is probably the biggest challenge out there today,” said Paffett.

Another approach to smallsat launch is being undertaken, surprisingly, by the US Army. Its Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) has taken a new interest in smallsats to perform tactical support roles such as communications, flying the first Army satellite in a half century as a secondary payload on last December’s Falcon 9 launch. Not satisfied with rideshare opportunities, though, SMDC is exploring the development of a dedicated smallsat launcher, called the Soldier Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space (SWORDS). The vehicle could place a nanosatellite-class payload into LEO for a target price of $1 million, and launch on 24 hours’ notice in order to meet the responsive needs.

“There are a number of nanosatellite launcher concepts out there, which is encouraging to me,” said John London of SMDC during an ISDC panel session. He was skeptical of the effectiveness of the proposed prize competitions, though, saying that the $2-million purse for the NASA prize in particular is “a little light” for the level of effort needed to develop a vehicle. “The numbers to go from where we are today to actually having an orbital flight test is probably in the $20–30 million range,” he said. London added he’s had discussions with both NASA and various Defense Department agencies on a joint effort to develop nanosat launchers that could include a competitive “flyoff” that would support the development of at least two vehicles all the way through flight test.

Despite these developments for both rideshare opportunities and dedicated launchers, getting smallsats to space remains a major issue for smallsat developers with no clear immediate solution. “That is probably the biggest challenge out there today,” said John Paffett, CEO of the US subsidiary of Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, the British firm that is one of the world’s leading smallsat manufacturers, during a panel session at the smallsat conference. “Getting these things to orbit is a challenge.”