The Smallsat Search for Low-Cost Launch

Thebuilding and exploitation of small satellites makes possible a diverse set ofmissions to satisfy academic, scientific, military and commercial needs.However, the U.S. community that develops smallsatellites -- or smallsats -- faces a perenial shortcoming of reliable, low-costlaunchers -- a long-term situation that stymies smallsat evolution and wideradoption of the technology. This ongoing issue is to be spotlighted this weekduring the 20th Annual Conference on Small Satellites, held in Logan, Utah. The gathering is sponsored by the American Institute ofAeronautics and Astronautics and Utah State University.

"This hasalways been a chicken-and-egg problem," said Matt Bille, a research analyst andwriter on microspace systems in Colorado Springs, Colo. "No one has succeeded commerciallywith a cheap, small booster because the market is inadequate to provide returnon the initial investment. And then there's the market that isn't there becausepayload developers could never be sure a cheap, small booster would beavailable."

Bille saidthis conundrum could be solved in two ways: either a private investor is willingto forgo a near-term return on research and development costs or the governmenteats those costs.

Both ofthose scenarios are in evidence, Bille pointed out. Space ExplorationTechnologies Corp. (SpaceX) of El Segundo, Calif., is developing launch vehiclesintended to reduce the cost and increase the reliability of access to space.Also, there's the joint venture of the Defense Advanced Research ProjectsAgency (DARPA) and U.S. Air Force called the Falcon Small Launch Vehicleprogram.

Hopefully,one or both efforts will produce an affordable booster that payload developerscan rely on," Bille said.

Engagingthe end user

Debra FacktorLepore, president of AirLaunch LLC, headquartered in Kirkland, Wash., sympathizes with the chicken-and-egg problem involvingsmall satellites and small launchers. "In our case, we're solving one of them having DARPA and the Air Force as the seed capital ... providing initialfunding. It puts us on a path to have credible steps toward a new launchvehicle," she said.

AirLaunchis developing their cargo aircraft-deployed QuickReach rocket under theDARPA/Air Force Falcon Small Launch Vehicle program, which is intended to allowU.S. government agencies to use smallsatellites with quick-response times for urgent military needs. The objectiveis to lob some 450 kilograms to low Earth orbit for $5 million dollars withless than 24-hours response time.

Firstflight test of the QuickReach rocket is scheduled to occur in 2008, she said.Several milestone drop tests of hardware have already been done to validate thelaunch concept.

NASA's Ames Research Center near Silicon Valley, Calif., announced July 26 that it hassigned a memorandum of understanding with AirLaunch to explore collaborationsin space launch systems launched from aircraft and payloads that cost less that$250 million.

"Theprimary user right now is military satellites. But we recognize, as does DARPA,that there are lots of payloads that want to get to space," Facktor Leporesaid. "The real trick in all of this is engaging the actual end user," shesaid, "for the space community to start articulating how small payloads canactually contribute to a commercial, civil or military application."

Changethe status quo

An emergingoption that could help further smallsat progress is the growing number of U.S. spaceports, such as the New Mexico inland spaceport.

Work on theNew Mexico facility already is under way -- aremote area near Upham that is favored due to its low population density, uncongestedairspace and high elevation. An inaugural launch from the site is slated forSeptember using a suborbital rocket sponsored by UP Aerospace. The firm's SpaceLoftXL rocket is front-loaded with a variety of payloads -- includinguniversity-built sensor hardware to be evaluated during the suborbitaltrajectory for future smallsat payloads bound for Earth orbit.

"We'vetaken a fresh look at all of the traditional cost-drivers of getting payloadsinto space, and have focused our engineering efforts to change the status quo,"said Eric Knight, chief executive officer of UP Aerospace, Farmington, Conn.

Knight saidsome of the largest flight expenses are payload integration time, effort andengineering. To tackle these expenses, UP Aerospace has developedpatent-pending systems that permit rapid and dramatically simplified payloadintegration -- systems that, in turn, would bring those associated costs down,he said.

UPAerospace has interest in developing an orbital vehicle that follows in thecontrail of the group's low-cost suborbital rocket. "We're making good strideson both the propulsion and vehicle-design fronts. The opportunity is veryexciting," Knight added.

Knightadvocates a regular dialog between the new breed of launch providers and theevolving smallsat community so both industries can mature rapidly with minimalmissteps, he said.

"There's nosense developing a launcher that can't fulfill customer needs," Knight said.


There'sconfusion about what exactly is a smallsat, said John Garvey, president andchief executive officer of Garvey Spacecraft Corp. in Long Beach, Calif. -- an aerospace research and development firm focusing oncost-effective development of advanced space technologies and launch vehiclesystems.

For theDefense Department and intelligence communities, a smallsat can be as big as1,000 kilograms -- the mass of a small car, Garvey advised. "Since they have themoney to fund projects like [the DARPA/Air Force] Falcon," he added, "thatmeans small launch vehicles end up being the size of the [SpaceX] Falcon 1 ...and from an operational perspective ... that is small only when compared to anAtlas or a Delta."

Incontrast, Garvey said, academic and entrepreneurial research companies workingon smallsat payloads tend to think more in terms of one kilogram to 100kilograms.

"My rule,"Garvey said, "is that if your biggest graduate student or second lieutenantcan't pick it up, it is not a smallsat."

On thelaunch vehicle side, Garvey warned that smallsat developers tend to give toomuch credibility to entrepreneurial launch companies. The smallsat communityties their projects on stated launch vehicle development plans andover-optimistic expectations.

"Furthermore,there appears to be minimal interest in publicly evaluating the performance ofthese 'new' rocket companies against their initial plans after several years ofoperation," Garvey observed. "There are small launch vehicle companies thathave gone a decade or more without putting anything into the air, yet gettreated and funded as if they are just as credible as everyone else. In otherindustries, companies either make it in a few years or go out of business. Notso in the launch arena."

Creatinga Field of Dreams

The paucityof cost-effective and regular launch opportunities for smallsats has beenholding the community back for decades, said Rex Ridenoure, president and chiefexecutive officer of Ecliptic Enterprises Corp. in Pasadena, Calif., emphasizing that both attributes are needed.

Ridenouresaid that academic and non-profit smallsat teams don't want to pay more than afew tens of thousands of dollars for their launches. Then there are thecommercial and government smallsat teams looking for launch costs of, ideally,no more than a few hundred thousand dollars.

"And allgroups would benefit from regular launch opportunities ... say at least a fewslots per quarter. Those teams that lock in affordable, timely launches are theones that get things done," Ridenoure said.

Recurringlaunch costs will be low only if payload interfaces and accommodations are keptrelatively standard and fixed, Ridenoure suggested. "We can't continue tore-invent the interfaces and redo the accommodation engineering and analysisfor each new payload that comes along."

What'sneeded, Ridenoure added, is to invoke lessons from the containerized shippingindustry. That is, frequent rides plus multiple destinations plus standardinterfaces and processes equals dramatically reduced delivery costs andprogress. This requires smart and consistent collaboration between launchproviders and payload developers, he said.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.