SmallSat Companies Optimistic About Micro-Launchers Possibilities (2016)
Originally published in Via Satellite Magazine
By: Thom Fain
Imagine a new space race, where mad men advertise real-time services brought about by new fleets of small rockets leaving Earth almost daily. Startups gather around to watch nanosatellites and SmallSats enter Low Earth Orbit (LEO) on payloads en masse, one after another. Constellations of satellites are bringing real-time solutions and impactful services to customers across the globe.
Your imagination may, fairly quickly, become modern reality.
“Data everywhere on the planet, all the time, and the ability to provide specific targeted services for our customers; that’s what we’re building,” says Jenny Barna, launch manager of Spire. “But for Spire to be successful, we need the ability to launch monthly and to choose from a variety of orbital planes.”
Micro-launchers are making it possible for satellite constellations to increase reliable communications back to Earth in the form of real-time broadcasting, imaging, positioning and weather. As these technologies continue to grow in demand, so does the demand for launch services.
Companies such as Spire — running at about 50 percent of the company’s planned constellation of Lemur CubeSats in orbit — are hoping for more certainty in launch schedules and greater flexibility. Paired with the introduction of new launch systems, this operation will suit the growing needs of every player in the market.
A Bullish Market
“Nobody is moving fast enough for a company like Spire,” Barna says. “But we do see a huge increase of trust and professionalism between launch service providers and the nano satellite community. I think that is translating into a faster-moving launch services community, and by that I mean we have been receiving access to more launch opportunities, including last-minute launches where they trust that we’ll deliver our satellites a few weeks after signing.”
Newcomers to the industry such as Astro Digital — which has a constellation of small multi-spectral imaging satellites, and plans to conduct its first four launches this year — help to illustrate the need for venture-funded enterprises that can balance their promises to customers with the reality of launch delays and limited scheduling.
“Since our customers are relying on us to deliver data, we need to know that our ride to orbit will work and will be an option for future launches,” says CEO Chris Biddy. He notes that those building new small satellite launch systems need to build trust and rapport with their prospective customer base. “A successful demo launch for example would help us build that confidence and of course repeated successful flights once the system is fully operational.”
That success is dependent upon a variety of variables and a bit of luck. Startups have limited reserve or means to wait with longanimity. A six-month launch delay could mean the death of a startup in some instances, though maturity in the market combined with technological advances lends a positive outlook for the future.
“It is still a nascent industry and will mature with better production operations, economies of scale and innovative ideas,” Biddy says. “I think there are a lot of smart people working on this problem and we will be surprised by what comes out of it in the next five years.”
Limited opportunities and access to space remain a problem for many companies, both new and established. Delays are regularly considered in launch strategies for more mature companies, but the needs of nascent small satellite companies have elevated market expectations for micro-launchers.
Heavy hitters across the burgeoning SmallSat community are jamming elbows with one another at an increasingly crowded table. Meanwhile, businesses and customers await the payback that these full constellations might bring.
After acquiring the BlackBridge RapidEye system in 2015 that came with a network of re-sellers represented in over 100 different countries, Planet has perhaps an added incentive to create new launch strategies: it wants to expedite client deliverables. Ideally, launchers would be able to trust companies to deliver satellites just a few weeks after signing.
But that could be hard to achieve without a faster track to get into orbit, due to the insane amount of backlogged orders many launch providers now carry.
“Maybe it’s the perfect opportunity [for us to launch], but the launch provider can’t get to us for another two and a half years, which would be too late in certain situations,” Safyan says.
There is optimism that the collective headache caused from launch bottleneck will be relieved in the not-so-distant future. Companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, for example, are at work engineering new methods for rapid-reusability. This could allow launchers to manifest missions quick enough to keep up with the satellite community’s accelerating launch cadences. Pricing schemes are improving and leaders in the launch vehicle industry are increasingly aggressive with development.
Satellite operators will require a speedier cadence in order to continue their intended growth and to provide services planned. Meanwhile, CubeSat developers are transparent in their attempts to expand opportunities to provide a spectrum of services — often in conjunction with other market players — to their eager customers on Earth.
“The progress I think we need is leveraging new manufacturing techniques, and leveraging new tricks like being able to recover the first stage,” says Satellogic CEO Emiliano Kargieman, whose company plans to launch a constellation of 300 small imaging satellites. “If there existed a vehicle that would put payloads in orbit that is a single-space orbit vehicle, and it could be recovered and launched the next day, then we have completely changed the dynamics.”
And while delays are certainly a thorn in the side of many satellite operators, the trend in the industry appears to be toward the positive when it comes to launch vehicles providing the capability for more frequent and better departures.
Future Launches Appear to be More, Better
There is a near-universal positive outlook within the SmallSat community as the transition from state-owned and state-operated rocket launch vehicles to commercially operated launch vehicles continues.
Maturation of new launch systems might assist in advancing new mission concepts, and there is hope that smaller and more dedicated launchers will operate with confidence. One thing appears inevitable, and that is that over the next decade, secondary payloads sent into orbit will increase in amount and frequency. But right now it’s difficult when SmallSat needs are treated as ancillary to the primary payload and its schedule.
But not everyone is sold on the idea that everybody can get into space all at once. “You can see OneWeb and others that are planning to launch hundreds or thousands of spacecraft,” says Phillip Miller, the vice president of operations and engineering for exactEarth. “They are going to have huge challenges of getting these things into orbit, and getting them into the orbit they want them in.”
Democratized access to space can allow for shortening of the lag time between satellite production and on-orbit deployment. The collaboration seen across the industry, such as exactEarth’s hosted payload constellation on Iridium Next, could also spur creative ways to rapidly-orbit space infrastructure. The majority of the Iridium Next constellation is launching on seven SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. Space-based aircraft tracking company Aireon is also using the constellation as a hosted payload platform for its LEO Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) service.
That the SmallSat business will continue to outpace the launch vehicle market is no question. Smaller launchers could match the niches created by startups in the satellite community by refining their manufacturing processes to gain entry into different orbits.
Demand is on the rise for smaller, dedicated launchers looking to contract SmallSat operators, which may result in better pricing through “economies of scale” nurtured by healthy competition. That same push isn’t being felt within the marketplace of larger rocket builders, however, because small satellites thus far have equated to small profit margins.
“Because it’s harder to scale, and it’s a low-margin business, those dynamics also affect the rate at which the commercial launch market will develop. That’s probably one of the reasons why there’s more development and faster development in the satellite services market than there is in the commercial launch vehicle market,” Kargieman says. Other than patience to hit a regular launch cadence, the biggest hurdle the SmallSat community appears to be facing is the improbability of lower pricing at any point in the near future.
“I’m not sure I see much decline in cost; it’s still pretty expensive. It’s just the measure you use. The ideas, the money for spacecraft and the things that could be done are far in excess of launch capabilities right now,” according to Miller.
Kargieman agrees, saying the emphasis of new small launchers is more on frequency of launch and not on dropping prices.
The health of competition among smaller rocket manufacturers to produce more and better rockets, however, is a subject of debate. Limitations in physics dictate many facets of rocketry that make it a high-cost, slow-build business right now, although production is expected to increase as companies begin wrapping up experimental phases of their new technologies.
New Launch Companies Make Instant Impact
Despite skepticism, new small launcher companies are gaining contracts. In October 2015, NASA awarded more than $17 million total in contracts to three companies designing dedicated small satellite launch systems. The awards to Virgin Galactic, Rocket Lab and Firefly Space Systems had an immediate impact on the industry. None of these companies have flown a mission yet, and with many SmallSat operators waiting for new launchers to prove their rockets actually work, success with NASA could provide confidence commercial companies need to commit to launches of their own. Each of the three is planning missions either for demonstration or for paying customers in the 2017 timeframe.
Newcomers to the launch market are setting launch schedules to help growing companies achieve their goals of a rapid-launch cadence. San Francisco’s Spire, for example, will launch some of its satellites using Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle, as will Planet. Growing trust within the industry is one reason the company jumped at the chance to sign with the U.S.-headquartered New Zealand-startup. “There’s an increasing level of professional and technical maturity within the nano-satellite community,” Barna says. “And I think that is translating into a faster-moving launch services community.” Some companies, like exactEarth for example, remain skeptical of launchers without much or any history of putting vehicles into orbit and doubt whether or not they will contribute to opening up the industry’s launch bottleneck.
“We have a saying that goes, three things are for sure: Life, death and taxes — and launches will be delayed,” says Miller. “Launchers almost always delay.” VS