Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Smallsats & Small Launch Vehicles

Space Shuttle Columbia model at NASA MSFC - July 2008

With historical awe over the Apollo Saturn V days and the excitement over a “monster” heavy-lift rocket, large launchers get all the attention. I can understand the appeal. Our ability to put huge payloads into orbit is impressive, almost inconceivable. Watching one of these giant rockets light and ascend to the heavens is spectacular. They deserve the attention they command.

And yet, under the radar, smaller launchers are aiming to revolutionize how we put objects into space. New small satellite launch vehicles (smallsat launchers) hope to deliver small payloads into orbit quickly and reliably for a much lower cost than what is currently available on the market. There is a huge pent-up demand for smallsat (cubesat, nanosat, microsat, etc.) launch and therefore a built-in initial customer base for any new launcher that can deliver as promised.

My first report for Northern Sky Research was a look at the smallsat launch vehicle markets. It demanded most of my time for a few months, but I’m proud announce it was published in September. Since then, I’ve published two follow-up articles on the subject: here and here. On December 14, my colleague and I will host a free webinar on smallsats and launchers. If you’re interested, sign up!

I’ve been privileged to watch several types of rocket launches in Florida: Space Shuttle, Delta II, Delta IV, Atlas V, Falcon 1, and Falcon 9. However, I have yet to see a smallsat launcher take to the skies. Most of these small launchers aren't operational yet. In the United States, only Orbital ATK's Pegasus is what I’d classify as a small launch vehicle currently in operation. Pegasus is currently scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral on December 12, but sadly I moved away from Florida and therefore will only be able to watch the video The last time Pegasus launched from the Space Coast, it was 2003 and I was a freshman in college not yet paying attention to non-crewed rocket launches.

I had hoped my previous employer would succeed with an air launch to orbit system similar to how Pegasus launches payloads to space. However, I now believe they have a low likelihood of succeeding, which is a shame. I hope I’m wrong. But the truth is, that not many of the nearly 50 smallsat launch systems will become operational. I have my favorites, but I’m not clairvoyant. Right before Firefly announced their financial difficulties that furloughed their staff, I praised their Alpha rocket as having a high likelihood of success. Surprises happen all the time.

The top companies I foresee succeeding in this area are Generation Orbit, Rocket Lab, Vector Space Systems, and Virgin Galactic. I’d love to see a Rocket Lab launch out of New Zealand someday, but given the distances, I'm more likely to see a smallsat launch from the United States. More than one of these companies plans to launch from Florida. I’d take a special trip down to the Sunshine State to see a future launch of one of these new vehicles! History will be made in the next few years in the smallsat launch vehicle industry.

The last launch I saw before moving - ULA Atlas V, July 2016

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