5 comments

  • I heard this podcast (and others) on the John Bachelor show. I enjoy them very much.

  • LocalFluff

    I doubt dedicated small launchers will take off. Prices of secondary payloads are crashing as commercialization, reusability and huger launchers are coming. ULA and other launch providers now offer methods for propulsing secondary payloads to their desired orbits, in the relatively rare cases that service is even required for small satellites. Many of them don’t care where they are. And the rest are happy in GEO, polar or Sun synchronous orbit or whatever their chosen primary payload is going. Why would a small satellite go to a unique orbit such that it cannot be secondary on any of the 80 or so large orbital launches a year?

    The potential for small launchers would not be dedicated launches of small satellites, but that a small launchers’ first stage maybe can be made much simpler and more robust and quickly reusable than a monster of hundreds of tons on the launch pad. Experience from shipping and airlines tells us that size wins. The reason trucks and trains are still small is because of the huge investments in infrastructure required to make them much larger.

    I’m frustrated to find useful information about it, but it seems to me that the 1,000 or so ICBMs that the US military might somehow make available to private launch industry, is planned, by Orbital ATK, to be bundled up into heavier launchers. So, there are plenty of rockets that could send a small satellite to orbit almost as is. But the industry leader thinks that it is better to turn them into fewer larger launchers. If this my perception is correct, it is an authoritative rejection of the small launcher concept.

  • Edward

    LocalFluff asked: “Why would a small satellite go to a unique orbit such that it cannot be secondary on any of the 80 or so large orbital launches a year?

    Do not get me wrong. Some of the proposed smallsat constellations will be launched on dedicated large rockets, so that they can get large numbers of satellites into their desired planes. However, emergency replacements to these unique planes and perhaps unique orbits could go individually on small launchers.

    A lot of satellites would be optimized in specific orbits rather than the arbitrary orbits available on piggyback rides.

    Many of the small satellites are intended to be short lived, so they may want to go to a low orbit so that they do not become space junk. The standard set for satellites is that they reenter within 25 years of launch, difficult to do for higher orbits but easy to do for low orbits. With a lot of small satellites going up, low orbits will be far more desirable than the higher orbits that the larger “main stream” satellites tend to use.

    A small satellite’s technologically updated replacement may want to go to orbit sooner rather than wait for an available large rocket. The advantage of the small satellite is that it costs so much less that it need not have a 15 year lifespan in order to recover its costs. Thus the latest technology can cost-effectively be lofted every few years or every few months. This beats NOAA’s problem of only being able to update their technology every 15 years or so when they put up their next generation of expensive large satellites.

    Small satellite companies may choose to go to a non-unique orbit on a small launcher due to timing, as in the business starts receiving revenue right now, not next year. I do not know of many small satellites in geostationary orbit, but there may be several stuck in geostationary transfer orbit. These may end up being hazardous space junk, unless they were placed in orbits whose perigees will eventually cause them to reenter.

    ULA most likely is not going to be willing to change orbital planes for small satellites. The delta V required is enormous.

    I am not going to second guess the industry’s own investigation into this market. I do not want to suggest that it is guaranteed to take off, because 25 years ago the industry also thought that the small satellite market was going to become big during the 1990s. This time, however, there are more small satellites heading to orbit than there were a quarter century ago.

  • LocalFluff

    @Edward

    “However, emergency replacements to these unique planes and perhaps unique orbits could go individually on small launchers.”
    But that’s a very very small market. How often are there such opportunities? For small satellites as opposed to Jupiter flyby missions. And without large scale operations based on something else, how could it compete with a secondary payload on the next available large launcher?

    Secondary payloads are now propelled by the upper stage to the orbit they want to have, after the primary payload has been delivered to its. ULA provides this in their Ride Sharing program. The secondary payload itself doesn’t carry any fuel or engine.

    Secondary payload can offer dedicated payload. At least if you can wait for the next roughly equatorial, polar, sun synchronous or Lunar big launcher to hitch a hike on. And adjust from the primary’s trajectory from there. Dedicated launchers require an audience of those with not only specific orbit requirements, which also has to do it at a special time.

  • Edward

    LocalFluff,
    You wrote: “But that’s a very very small market.

    Maybe, but there are at least three companies that want to put up constellations of hundreds of small satellites, so there may be a larger market than you think.

    You wrote: “how could it compete with a secondary payload on the next available large launcher?

    Two ways: 1) there are a limited of next available large launchers, and 2) when you need a specific orbit, there may be no next available large launcher that can satisfy that need.

    You wrote: “Secondary payloads are now propelled by the upper stage to the orbit they want to have

    Only when the orbit is close to the primary’s orbit. Also, this service is more costly than just being dropped off. It does not take much for the small launcher to be more cost competitive.

    You wrote: “Dedicated launchers require an audience of those with not only specific orbit requirements, which also has to do it at a special time.

    From what I am reading in the trade magazines (and online), this is already a much larger audience than you thinks it is.

    Those who do not care about their orbit are usually testing technology or otherwise do not have serious business plans (e.g university students who are learning satellite design by doing). Those with serious business plans need timely launches in order to stay in business and they may need specific orbits in order to carry out their business and satisfy their customers.

    The sheer number of small sats will soon outnumber the secondary payload opportunities. This is why so many companies are trying to get into the small launcher business. It is unlikely that all of them will succeed, but those that do should do well, especially with their ability to provide better service to those who will become primary payloads rather than secondary.

    Technological advances now allow small satellites to do quite a few things that used to require large satellites to accomplish. An advantage being that these less expensive satellites need not last as long as the larger, more expensive ones, so they can and will be replaced, far more often, with the latest technology, rather than wait 15 years, as they do with the larger satellites.

    Many of the small satellite operators are looking for less expensive ways to get their less expensive satellites into proper orbits in a timely manner.

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