Last year was pretty good for small satellites weighing less than 10 kg (22 lbs). 46 percent of all satellites launched in 2014 weighed less than 10 kg. A LOT of satellites were launched in 2014. Heck, just one Russian Dnepr rocket deployed 37 satellites during one launch last year. Many were deployed from the International Space Station. But while small satellites seem set to grow even more this year, one of the big limiting factors to that growth is the number of rockets that can launch them, inexpensively and reliably. And little oopsies such as what happened with the Antares and Falcon rockets aren’t doing much to increase the opportunities to launch small satellites.
…there’s a company trying to join what appears to be the growing small satellite market business through providing cheaper prices for launching satellites. Rocket Lab, founded about eight years ago, is building a new rocket and is offering to launch a satellite for as low as $80,000. And that satellite has to be quite small–a 1U cubesat. 1U means 1 unit, the satellite, that is 10 cm (3.94 inches) by 10 cm by 10 cm big and weighs no more than 1.33 kg (2.93 lbs).
A person has the option to go bigger, but will need to pay more. Rocket Lab will graciously launch a 3U cubesat for $250,000. They will launch either one on their yet-to-be-launched Electron rocket. The rocket can only hold so much–8 1U cubesats and 24 3U cubesats per launch. It looks like there’s a bit of interest in the launch opportunities, which they’re projecting to start in the third quarter of 2016. Peter Beck, Rocket Lab CEO, explains some of the rationale for why their system will work in the video below.
The Electron rocket is new and full of interesting tech to make launch cheaper, and you can read about the rocket, here. But Rocket Lab is also building a commercial launch site in New Zealand. Part of the problem Rocket Lab has identified with the current active spaceports is how busy they are and how active the airspace is around those spaceports. In the U.S., certain transportation such as boats, trains, and planes are restricted from moving through spaces in which a rocket can launch and/or fail.
Rocket Lab also believe the location is perfect for launching satellites into “high inclination” orbits. Those orbits will probably be at angles of 90 degrees plus from the Earth’s equator since they’re specifically mentioning sun-synchronous orbits as the target for the satellites they’ll be launching. What, you don’t know what sun-synchronous is? You can go here to read about the sun-synchronous low earth orbit if you want to learn more.
Rocket Lab isn’t the only company focused on catering to the small satellite market. Firefly Space Systems is building their Alpha rocket, which will be able to launch at least 12 3U satellites and a bigger primary payload into sun-synchronous orbit. No advertised prices per satellite yet, but since there are less cubesats launched, and their CEO was quoting $8-9 million to launch an Alpha (vs. Electron’s $4.9 million per launch), the pricing might be slightly higher to launch a cubesat on an Alpha. And Firefly will still have to deal with the problems of current spaceports, unless they build their own (or perhaps lease from SpaceX?). But the Alpha can carry more mass.
Either way, it seems like more competition is coming to the small launcher market. I might be able to afford my small satellite fleet yet…