Narayan PrasadDec 05, 2019 16:51:58 IST
For several decades rockets were built to deliver satellites that weigh several hundred or thousand kilograms. None of the launch providers were really interested in just putting satellites into orbit that were the size of a shoebox or typical refrigerator, because of the insignificantly low returns they would get in accommodating these satellites against larger payloads.
However, over the last decade, the cubesat and small satellite revolution has created a growing demand for launch services for these satellites.
In this article we provide a gentle primer to the topic of how the demand for cubesat and small satellites has evolved and give an overview of some of the launch service providers currently available on the global marketplace for space.
In the next few chapters we take a brief look at how launch service provision works and discuss what key performance characteristics need to be taken into account when selecting a product for your operation.
The sudden emergence of an avalanche of cubesats and small satellites in the space industry over the last decade has created a classic problem of demand and supply for space launches. Essentially, because the big rockets had to find a way to accommodate and adapt to servicing multiple cubesats and other small satellites on their rockets.
Given that only a handful of launches are available for any satellite to get to orbit every year, multiple satellite manufacturers have been trying to get onboard launch manifests as quickly as possible to ensure their satellites can deploy and provide services to their customers. This demand-and-supply problem has created an opportunity for service providers who can streamline the entire process of procuring a launch, and the space industry has seen the emergence of several launch service providers.
In this article, we look at some of the factors that should be taken into account while selecting a launch service provider. We also provide an overview of a number of launch service providers on the market, all of which are listed on the satsearch platform to help you select the best option.
The lifecycle of launching a cubesat or a small satellite
Once a satellite is built there are several aspects that need to be taken care of in the process of launching it into space to ensure safety and success:
- Finding a launch slot: Although there are tens of launch vehicles under development in the industry today, reliable launch options are scarce. There is no use for a satellite sitting in a lab and finding a launch slot that coincides with the final assembly of the satellite can be challenging. There are also barriers to accessing certain launch options such as the fact that US satellites are not allowed to launch out of Chinese rockets.
- Launcher requirements and contract management: once a launch option is selected the price, window for launch and other aspects such as compliance to the environmental requirements of the rocket need to be agreed.
- Use of launch adapters and deployers: Cubesats cannot be integrated directly into a rocket and need deployers or dispensers to get into orbit. Similarly, small satellites of various volumes or masses may not have specific launch interface adapters available from the launch providers. A decision to use a particular deployer, or work with the launch operator to use their adapter, needs to be made as a part of interfacing with the rocket.
- Transport and integration: after the satellite is built, integrated and tested it needs to be transported safely, to remote locations where launches are often conducted to integrate it into the rockets. This involves clearance of the satellite through export control, customs, final environmental tests, integration and checkout tests of the satellite into the rocket.
Types of launch options for cubesats and small satellites
- Launch service providers: Launch service providers enable teams building cubesats and small satellites to access a launch seamlessly by solving the major problems that satellite manufacturers and satellite-based service providers face in getting to orbit. As the supply of launches are scarce in the industry, launch service providers help plan and discover the optimum launch options catering to the mission, orbit, timeframe and budget.
Launch service providers make life easy for teams trying to launch their satellites by taking the risk of booking a launch with the rocket (launch provider) and offering slots as individual contracts. Once a potential launch provider is selected, the details of interfacing the satellite into the launch vehicle and complying with the requirements of the launch vehicle are all provided on behalf of the launch operator.
Launch service providers package the provision of launch adapters and Picosatellite Orbital Deployers (PODs) so that both the launch provider and the satellite manufacturers don’t need to bother about having the right mechanical and electrical interfaces with the launch vehicle. Once a decision is made to choose a particular launch option, all the legal and regulatory aspects of launch support, provision of the deployers, the necessary environmental tests, transport of the satellite, clearance of customs, running of final tests and integrating the satellite with the rocket is all taken care of by these launch service providers.
- Launch operators who also do service provision: Traditionally, aggregating demand for cubesats and small satellites was difficult for launch operators, and this is one of the reasons why they depended on service providers to aggregate this demand. For example, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from India has seen tens of satellites being launched into space on multiple campaigns organised by launch service providers such as Spaceflight Industries, who aggregated the demand.
However, this landscape is now evolving with launch operators such as SpaceX and RocketLab themselves looking to provide services. This phenomenon may become bigger as many other small satellite rocket operators may come online to make the entire process of getting to orbit smoother for cubesat and small satellite manufacturers.
- International Space Station (ISS) based launch services: The ISS is a free flying asset in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) which has been leveraged over the last few years to deploy cubesats and small satellites. The low orbit of ISS ensures that these satellites have a short life span in orbit and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere within a few years.
The Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (SSOD) attached to the Japanese module’s robotic arm is used by astronauts who seal the airlock on the ISS, open the other end up to space, and command the station’s Kibo robotic arm to pick up the deployer to bring it outside for satellite deployment. ISS based launch service providers are specific to US and Japan as they are key stakeholders in using the Kibo robotic arm. The ISS can also be used to perform experiments inside the station.
- Orbit as a service: Launch vehicles often deliver satellites into an orbit with a specific inclination, altitude. However, satellites launched as a part of the constellation often need to go into different inclinations so that they can maximize the service area over the Earth’s surface. This can be solved by adding a propulsion device on the satellites, but that will obviously make the satellites more expensive and also add additional weight.
This problem is creating another opportunity in the launch service provision industry to create a service to deliver satellites launched as a part of a constellation on the same rocket to go into different inclinations. We call this the ‘orbit as a service’ model.
- Marketplaces for launch services: Emerging start-ups are testing the possibility of streamlining the launch industry by creating a marketplace for teams seeking out launch opportunities. They may be more widely used once several launch operators mature and tens of reliable options available in the market to choose from.
Launch options for cubesats and small satellites on the market
Below we have listed several launch options for cubesats and small satellites that are currently available. [Please note that this list will be updated when new products are added to the global marketplace for space – so please check back for more.]
Launch service providers
EXOLAUNCH began as a spinoff from the Technical University of Berlin and today offers launch services, mission management solutions and deployment systems for small satellites.
The company offers a tailored launch service designed to meet the specific needs of each smallsat customer with a variety of launch opportunities are available including LEO/SSO and GTO/GEO.
Previous clients have included some of the world’s most ambitious startups and established companies along with universities, space agencies and scientific institutions.
- Satellites launched to date - 85
- Cubesats launched to date (0.25-16U) - 76
- Microsats launched to date (up to 200kg) - 9
Spaceflight Industries provide services to help clients identify, book and manage rideshare launches. The company aims to offer a straightforward and cost-effective suite of products and services that includes
- State-of-the-art satellite infrastructure,
- Rideshare launch offerings,
- Payload integration, and
- Global communications networks.
Ultimately, Spaceflight enables commercial, non-profit organizations and government entities to achieve their mission goals – on time and on budget.
- Satellites launched to date - 250
- Launch vehicles in network - 10
Launch operators providing integrated services
SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.
SpaceX offers competitive pricing for launches on its well-known Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy systems. The company can also offer discounts for multi-launch purchases for clients able to commit to a longer term contract. In addition, SpaceX can also offer crew transportation services for certain LEO destinations.
- Launch vehicles in network - 3
- Launches currently contracted - 100+
Rocket Lab created its flagship Electron program to deliver frequent and reliable access to space for smallsats. Electron is an entirely carbon-composite vehicle that uses Rocket Lab’s 3D-printed Rutherford engines for primary propulsion.
The vehicle is a 2-stage rocket that is 17m in length and has a diameter of 1.2m. The vehicle delivers nominal payloads of up to 150kg (maximum is 225kg) to a 500km sun-synchronous orbit.
- Satellites launched to date - 40
International Space Station (ISS) based launch services
Space BD aims to become a one-stop shop to respond to all issues related to the industrialization of space and alleviate the work of businesses that are developing new technologies.
As a first step, Space BD seeks to lower the burden of accessing space and contribute to the commercialization of the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) region by providing solutions through business-driven approach to overcome various obstacles with the industrialization of space.
NanoRacks LLC was founded in 2009 in Houston, Texas and is a market leader in commercial small satellite launches from the ISS. NanoRacks CubeSat Deployers provide the opportunity for customers to deploy cubesats up to 6U in size ranging from 1 to 50 kilograms.
The deployment platform also allows for multiple satellites to be deployed in sequence, enhancing abilities to create cubesat constellations. Additionally, NanoRacks has for the first time launched its External CubeSat Deployer on OA-6 that is mounted to Cygnus, and will deploy after Cygnus departs ISS.
On-board the ISS, NanoRacks provides plug-and-play microgravity research facilities, allowing standardized payloads to use a range of platforms. NanoRacks aims to enhance space utilization in low earth orbit and beyond.
- Payloads launched to date - 900+
Orbit as a service
D-Orbit is a NewSpace company with solutions covering the entire lifecycle of a space mission, including mission analysis and design, engineering, manufacturing, integration, testing, launch, and end-of-life decommissioning.
D-Orbit states that its competitive advantage is the versatility of launch and deployment services available, which can be tailored to the customer’s needs. From the launch procurement of a single spacecraft using standard deployment strategies to the precise deployment of a full constellation with ION CubeSat Carrier, a free-flying dispenser developed and operated by D-Orbit.
ION CubeSat Carrier can host any combination of cubesats with a total volume of up to 48U and release them individually into distinct orbital slots, enabling deployment schemes previously unavailable to spacecraft with no independent propulsion.
Momentus provides in-space transportation services for satellites between various orbits out to deep space. The company’s water-powered in-space rockets provide last-mile logistics, connecting customers from where their rockets drop them off to their final destination. Momentus’ mission is to provide the most efficient in-space transportation powered by deep space resource utilization services.
Marketplaces to find and book a launch
Precious Payload is an online launch booking platform for smallsats that features manifests and rideshare slots posted directly by launch operators. The aim is to reduce costs and time associated with procuring the launch by adopting the latest standards and introducing automatic matchmaking algorithms.
Precious Payload advocates for building a GDS-like (global distribution system) architecture for space launches, similar to what has been done for airlines and cargo shipments when those industries entered the internet age.
The author is the co-founder of satsearch, a space industry expert and curator of NewSpace India, a networking community for space-related developments in India.
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