Tag Archives: smallsats

Falcon 9 first stage successfully flies for the third time

Capitalism in space: During a successful launch today of 64 smallsats, SpaceX successfully landed for the third time the rocket’s first stage.

This first stage flew twice before, in May and August. With this flight it is primed for a fourth flight, I will bet sometime in the next two months.

SpaceX was also going to try to recover half of the fairing, but as I write this there is no word yet on that effort. Also, the deployment of the 64 smallsats will start momentarily and take more than an hour. During the live stream, which you can watch as a replay at the link, it was very clear that one of SpaceX’s commercial goals with this launch was to promote the Falcon 9 as an affordable and viable vehicle for launching smallsats. SpaceX is anticipating the growth of that business, and wants to encourage smallsat manufacturers to buy their services. As I like to say, the competition is heating up.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

33 China
19 SpaceX
13 Russia
9 Europe (Arianespace)
8 ULA

China remains ahead of the U.S. in the national rankings, 33 to 31.

Update: What I neglected to mention, partly because I was writing this post while traveling, is that with SpaceX launch the company set a new annual record for the most launches in a year, which is also the record for the most launches in a year by any private company, ever.

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Hidebound government slowing smallsat industry

The smallsat industry has found itself slowed by the federal government’s reluctance to adopt the new technologies that allow tiny satellites to do the same things that once required big satellites.

Small satellites have been hailed as a game changer in the space industry, but the government’s slower than anticipated adoption of smallsat technology has been a disappointment for many companies. “When the smallsat movement started, the thinking was, ’We don’t need the government,’” said Bhavya Lal, a researcher at the IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute, a federally funded think tank. “But over the last five years, almost all the smallsat companies we talked to are eager for government contracts” to make up for lackluster commercial demand, she said. “It’s something they didn’t anticipate.”

IDA last year published a wide-ranging study of the small satellite industry. There is a “growing realization that there aren’t as many business customers as originally hoped,” Lal said. “Maybe that will change as broadband mega constellations come on line.” Companies like SpaceX and OneWeb are projected to build huge constellations of small satellites but projects have taken longer to materialize than predicted.

Advocates of small satellites say government agencies have little economic incentive to experiment with unfamiliar technology. They can afford to buy large satellites and have yet to be convinced that lower cost smallsats can provide comparable services. [emphasis mine]

I think the conclusion highlighted in the quote above is faulty, based on past data and not likely future events. They are looking at the customers that exist before the new smallsat rockets come on line. Once cheap access for smallsats is assured, from multiple launchers, I expect the number of business customers will rise quickly.

Nonetheless, there is no harm in lobbying our government for more business, as long as this new industry doesn’t become dependent on it. If that happens, expect costs to rise and innovation to slow.

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FCC approves four proposed satellite constellations, including SpaceX’s of 7,500+

Capitalism in space: The FCC has approved licenses to launch four different proposed smallsat satellite constellations, totaling almost 8,000 satellites.

Of that total, more than 7,500 would belong to SpaceX’s proposed Starlink constellation.

The new regulatory approvals set the stage for two companies, SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, and Telesat of Ottawa, Canada, to expand constellations already approved last year with more satellites in the rarely used V-band spectrum. Canadian startup Kepler Communications and LeoSat, a company licensed from the Netherlands, also received approvals, Kepler for 140 Ku-band satellites and LeoSat for 78 Ka-band satellites.

Of the four, SpaceX is by far the largest with 7,518 satellites constituting what it calls a “very low Earth orbit,” or VLEO constellation that would operate slightly below 350-kilometers. At that altitude, SpaceX says atmospheric drag would pull spent satellites down in one month, assuaging concerns about the magnitude of debris that that many satellites could create in higher orbits.

While SpaceX likely plans to launch its satellites on its own rockets, the other companies will likely depend on the new smallsat rocket companies — Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Vector — that are about to all come on line.

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Virgin Orbit completes fastest taxi test of LaunchOne

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit this past weekend completed the fastest taxi test of its LaunchOne smallsat rocket airplane, with LaunchOne attached.

In a tweet posted today, Virgin Orbit said the Nov. 11 ground test revved up the plane, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, to a speed beyond 110 knots (125 mph) on a runway in Victorville, Calif. That’s fast enough to simulate an aborted takeoff. “We also used the day as an opportunity to load real flight software onto LauncherOne for the first time,” the company said.

My 2016 prediction, that Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne will reach space before Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, looks increasingly likely. They had said they wanted to do their first launch by the end of the 2018 summer. Though this did not happen, their launch license [pdf] is effective through December 2019, and it appears they are moving towards that first launch within a few months.

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Vector raises $70 million more in investment capital

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Vector has successfully raised an additional $70 million in investment capital.

The increased funds bodes well for the company, but I am becoming increasingly concerned the company is more sizzle than steak. From the article:

With this round of funding, Vector plans to expand its sales and marketing teams. And the goal is to double its footprint in Silicon Valley. Vector is also expecting to break ground on a new state-of-the-art factory in Tucson. And Vector is advancing towards a first orbital attempt set to take place from the Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska soon.

Their original plan was to complete five test launches leading up to their first orbital try. Only two of those launches have flown, and it appears they are aiming to make the third launch orbital, with no clear schedule indicated. More significantly, it appears that they are not using the additional money for rocket development but for “sales and marketing.” Shouldn’t that come after the rocket is operational?

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Rocket Lab officially opens new rocket facility

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today unveiled a new rocket production facility designed to mass produce its rockets.

The new 7,500 sq/m (80,700 sq/ft) rocket development and production facility in Auckland, is designed for rapid mass production of the Electron rocket. Adding to Rocket Lab’s existing production facility and headquarters in Huntington Beach, California, the new facility brings Rocket Lab’s manufacturing footprint to more than 4.5 acres and enables the company to build an Electron rocket every week.

The new facility was officially opened on 12 October 2018 NZDT, by Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck and special guest William Shatner, best known for his role as Captain Kirk in the Star Trek series and films.

It suddenly occurred to me that the construction of this facility might explain the long delay in Rocket Lab’s next launch. I suspect they wanted to incorporate any corrections or redesign to the malfunctioning motor controller that was identified just prior to a planned launch in June.

This also suggests that once they complete their next two launches, now scheduled for November and December, they will hit the ground running and will be aiming for frequent launches, maybe as many as once per week.

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More details about Chinese suborbital launch earlier this week

Link here. The article really only provides one new detail about the flight itself, that the rocket used solid rocket motors. This fact, plus the overall secrecy, suggest to me that the company, iSpace, is doing its work for the Chinese military.

The article at the link also provides a good overview of the entire Chinese “private” smallsat rocket industry.

China is still run from the top, so any “private” rocket company must have the approval and support of the government. What makes China different from Russia, also ruled from the top, is the Chinese government’s willingness to encourage competitive independent operations, something the Russians has not done. The result is that China’s rocket industry is not stagnating, but growing.

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Chinese smallsat rocket company completes suborbital launch

iSpace, a Chinese smallsat rocket company, completed a suborbital test rocket launch today, releasing three cubesats.

The article at the link is very short and poorly written. It implies that two cubesats reached orbit, with a third returning to Earth using a parachute. This was clearly a suborbital flight

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EXOS completes successful test flight of reusable suborbital rocket

Capitalism in space: EXOS Aerospace yesterday completed a successful test flight of its reusable suborbital rocket, SARGE, at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The company’s first Suborbital Autonomous Rocket with GuidancE, or SARGE, rocket lifted off from Spaceport America in New Mexico at approximately 2:15 p.m. Eastern. After reaching an unspecified peak altitude, the rocket descended under parachute, landing about 15 minutes later a short distance from the pad. The rocket’s nose cone, descending under a ballute, landed several minutes earlier.

The company didn’t immediately disclose technical details about the flight, such as the peak altitude, but in a live webcast of the launch appeared to be satisfied with the vehicle’s performance, despite the vehicle appearing to veer from its vertical trajectory briefly after liftoff.

“This was a very successful test for us,” said John Quinn, chief operating officer of Exos, on the webcast. “We’re very excited that we had all of our recovery systems operational.”

It sounds as if they were mostly testing the recovery systems that will allow the rocket and payload to land safely in a condition to fly again.

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3D-printed solar panels for cubesats!

A solar panel for a cubesat

The image on the right was sent to me last night by engineer Joe Latrell. It shows a 3D-printed solar panel designed for use on a cubesat. As he wrote,

[This is] the first integration of a solar panel with the 3D printed material. The panel is not attached but rather embedded in the plastic during the printing process. This helps protect the panel from transport damage and makes it easier to assemble the final satellite. This design needs a slight adjustment but is almost there.

What makes Joe’s work most interesting is where he is doing it. Last week, in posting a link to a story about a Rocket Lab deal that would make secondary payloads possible on its smallsat rocket Electron, I noted that things were moving to a point where someone could build a satellite for launch in his garage.

This in turn elicited this comment from Joe:

As a matter of fact, I am building a PocketQube satellite for launch in Q3 2019. Yes, I am working in a small shop – just behind the garage. Nothing fancy but the price was right. I am working with Alba Orbital and the flight is scheduled on the Electron. These are very exciting times.

Alba Orbital is smallsat company aimed at building lots of mass produced smallsats weighing only about two pounds.

Anyway, Joe then followed up with another comment with more information:

This first [satellite] is just to see if it can be done. I plan to have it take a couple images and relay data regarding the orientation methods I am planning to use (gravity and magnetic fields). If it works, I am hoping to get funding to develop a small series of satellites to track global water use.

It is also a good way to test some of the materials I think would make spacecraft lighter and cheaper.

Yesterday he sent me the above image. This is the future of unmanned satellites and planetary probes, small, light, cheap, and built with 3D printers by single entrepreneurs. And because of their inexpensive nature, the possibilities for profit and growth are truly almost infinite, which in turn will provide developments that make space travel for humans increasingly smaller, lighter, cheaper, and easier to build as well.

To repeat Joe’s comment, these are very exciting times.

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An update on China’s private smallsat rocket companies

Link here. The article describes the most recent news from OneSpace (which recently secured $44 million in financing), Landspace (building larger rockets), and Exspace (next launch planned for September).

While these companies are structured like American private companies, in China nothing having anything to do with space is really private. None of these companies can do anything without the full approval of China’s authoritarian communist government. Unlike Russia, however, China, has decided to allow competition to drive its space industry, not central control. It is encouraging small independent operations to come up with their own ideas and to compete with each other.

In the end, they will all be co-opted by the government, but for now this policy is producing for China some real results.

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Researchers say cubesats with propulsion systems must have encrypted software

Capitalism in space: Researchers from Yale University are recommending that the smallsat industry establish rules requiring all future cubesats that carry their own propulsion systems be encrypted to prevent them from being hacked.

That research by a team of graduate students, presented at the AIAA/Utah State University Conference on Small Satellites here Aug. 9, recommended the space industry take steps to prevent the launch of such satellites to avoid an incident that could lead to a “regulatory overreaction” by government agencies. “We would propose as a policy that, for those cubesats and smallsats that have propulsion, that the industry adopt a ‘no encryption, no fly’ rule,” said Andrew Kurzrok of Yale University.

That recommendation comes as cubesat developers, who once had few, if any, options for onboard propulsion, are now looking to make use of more advanced chemical and electric propulsion systems. Some of those technologies can provide smallsats with large changes in velocity, which can enable major orbital changes.

Kurzrok and colleagues at Stanford University and the University of Colorado modeled several different propulsion systems on a notional 10-kilogram nanosatellite, assuming the spacecraft was in a 300-kilometer orbit and that the propulsion systems accounted for half the spacecraft’s mass. The results ranged from the satellite reaching medium Earth orbit altitudes within two hours when using chemical propulsion to passing geostationary orbit in about a year with an electric propulsion system.

The scenario involving the nanosatellite with chemical propulsion is particularly troubling, he said. “What are the abilities within two hours to track that something isn’t where it’s supposed to be and then warn or take some sort of secondary action?” he said, concluding that the satellite reaching GEO in a year is a much less plausible threat.

The concern, then is a scenario where hackers are able to take control of a satellite and redirect it quickly.

Getting encryption for their software would raise costs, but it really is the cost of doing business. Better for the industry to create these rules than wait for the federal government to step in, as the government regulation will certainly end up being more odious and difficult to change.

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UK estimates its new spaceport could capture thousands of smallsat launches

Capitalism in space: Estimates by the United Kingdom’s space agency suggest that its new spaceport in Scotland could capture thousands of smallsat launches by the end of the 2020s.

Figures released … suggest that existing ‘rideshare’ small satellite launches (small satellites piggybacking on larger missions) are capable of meeting less than 35% of the total demand. This reveals a significant gap in commercial small satellite launch provision for which future UK spaceports are well placed to compete.

The press release also gives an update on the recent actions of the two smallsat rocket companies, Orbex and Lockheed Martin (in partnership with Rocket Lab), to establish operations in Scotland.

It remains to be seen whether these predictions will come true. Right now it appears that a giant boom in the smallsat industry is about to happen, and if it does the need for launchpads will become critical. If so, the policy shift in the UK to favor private spaceflight is arriving at just the right time.

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Company aims to sell its rocket engines to smallsat rocket companies

Capitalism in space: The new rocket engine manufacturer Ursa Major is aiming to sell its rocket engines to the new wave of smallsat rocket companies now emerging.

Ursa Major has taken up the challenge of trying to convince launch startups to outsource their engines rather than follow the models of SpaceX and Blue Origin. “The first gut response is ‘our engines are special and we don’t have a company without our engines,’ but if there is a way to increase their margin by flying someone else’s engines, most companies will be interested in coming around,” Ursa Major founder and CEO Joe Laurienti says.

Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit and Vector Space Systems — three frontrunners fielding dedicated smallsat launchers — are building engines in house. Currently, just two launch startups — Generation Orbit and ABL Space Systems — have gone public with plans to depend on Laurienti’s 26-person team in Berthoud, Colorado, to supply the engines for the satellite launchers they’re developing.

That we now have companies that have successfully raised investment capital for both building rocket engines in-house for their own rockets as well buying them from independent subcontractors is firm proof that the upcoming boom in smallsat rockets is real, and very robust. The 20s should be a very exciting decade for rocketry.

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Vector plans first orbital flight this October

Capitalism in space: Smallsat rocket company Vector now plans its first orbital flight this coming October, and also plans to have a commercial payload on board.

The article also states that the company already has launch contracts for almost 400 launches.

This story, consistent with a previous report in March, suggests that their build toward that first orbital launch is holding to its schedule.

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Proposed new FCC regulations would shut out student cubesats

We’re here to help you! Proposed new FCC regulations on the licensing of smallsats would raise the licensing cost for student-built cubesats so much that universities would likely have to shut down the programs.

In a move that threatens U.S. education in science, technology, engineering and math, and could have repercussions throughout the country’s aerospace industry, the FCC is proposing regulations that may license some educational satellite programs as commercial enterprises. That could force schools to pay a US$135,350 annual fee – plus a $30,000 application fee for the first year – to get the federal license required for a U.S. organization to operate satellite communications.

It would be a dramatic increase in costs. The most common type of small satellite used in education is the U.S.-developed CubeSat. Each is about 10 inches on a side and weighs 2 or 3 pounds. A working CubeSat that can take pictures of the Earth can be developed for only $5,000 in parts. They’re assembled by volunteer students and launched by NASA at no charge to the school or college. Currently, most missions pay under $100 to the FCC for an experimental license, as well as several hundred dollars to the International Telecommunications Union, which coordinates satellite positions and frequencies. [emphasis mine]

If these new and very high licensing fees are correct I find them shocking. As noted in the quote, building a cubesat costs practically nothing, only about $5,000. The new fees thus add gigantic costs to the satellite’s development, and could literally wipe the market out entirely. They certainly will end most university programs that have students build cubesats as a first step towards learning how to build satellites.

These new regulations appear to be part of the Trump administration’s effort to streamline and update the regulatory process for commercial space. It also appears that the FCC has fumbled badly here in its part of this process.

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DARPA announces $10 million launch challenge for smallsat rocket companies

Capitalism in space: DARPA yesterday announced a new launch challenge competition for smallsat rocket companies, with prizes of $10, $9, and $8 million for first, second, and third prizes, respectively.

Contest rules call for teams to be given the full details about where and when they’ll launch, what kind of payload they’ll launch, plus what kind of orbit the payload should be launched into, only a couple of weeks in advance. And that’s just half the job. Teams will be required to execute another launch, from a different site, no more than a couple of weeks later.

The precise time frames for giving advance notice are still under discussion, but “I would measure the time scale in days,” Todd Master, program manager for the challenge at DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, told reporters today.

Considering that we right now already have at least two smallsat rocket companies, Rocket Lab and Vector, on the verge of doing exactly this, without the need of government money, with a slew of other companies to soon follow, I wonder why DARPA is proposing this competition. It seems somewhat irrelevant at this point, making me wonder if its real purpose is not to encourage rocket development but to find a clever way to hand some government cash to these specific companies.

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Stratolaunch to make first flight later this year

Capitalism in space: Paul Allen said at a space conference today that Stratolaunch will likely make its maiden flight later this year.

Actual satellite launches will have to wait until around 2020, however, as the giant plane will first have to be certified by the FAA, a process expected to take one and a half to two years.

The profitability of this launch system at the moment remains an unknown. The only rocket presently set to launch on Stratolaunch is Orbital ATK’s Pegasus, which is designed to launch small to mid-size satellites. Stratolaunch will therefore have to compete with the slew of new smallsat rocket companies that should be becoming operational in the next two years. It will be interesting to see if this air-launched system will be able to compete with them.

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Chinese competition in smallsat rocket industry forcing prices down

Capitalism in space: The price to launch smallsats is plummeting, partly because of competitive pressure coming from China.

During a panel discussion at the Satellite 2018 conference here March 12, executives of several launch providers said they expected small launchers under development or entering service in China, either by state-owned enterprises or private ventures, to sharply reduce launch prices in the coming years. “I think the Chinese are going to drive an order of magnitude reduction in launch costs, building satellites and operating satellites. That will happen in the next five years,” said Rich Pournelle, vice president of business development for NanoRacks, a company that offers rideshare launch services for smallsats, primarily from the International Space Station.

Pournelle said that there are already signs of price pressure on launches. “Cubesats that used to cost $350,000–400,000 to launch are now $250,000 and going down,” he said. “You’re seeing a tremendous pressure from Asia, especially, on the launch side.”

Others on the panel agreed. “I think prices will settle and start to go lower as the Chinese put more launchers on,” said Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight, which also provides rideshare launch services on a variety of vehicles. “That will put pressure on U.S. launch vehicles.”

The industry concern here is that the Chinese companies are not really private, and can be heavily subsidized by China so that they can offer lower prices than anyone else. They are therefore suggesting that the government should step in and act to protect them from this competition.

I say, the government should stay out. For one thing, U.S. law today prevents American companies from using Chinese launchers, and a vast majority of the launch business is going to come from the U.S. The U.S. smallsat launch industry will have plenty of work, and can very effectively deal with the Chinese competition without government help. Moreover, this Chinese competition will only serve to enliven the market, and bring about more innovation and lower prices. The last thing we need is the government stepping in to interfere with that healthy and free competition.

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Air Force reconsiders rocket engine, aims for small rocket launches

Two stories over the past few days indicated some shifts in the Air Force’s commercial space contracting policies.

The first story has to do with ULA’s Atlas 5 and future Vulcan rockets. The engine that Aerojet Rocketdyne has been building, AR-1, has received significant subsidizes from the government for its construction, even though its only potential customer, ULA, has said it prefers Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine. ULA has not made a decision yet on which engine to use, but my sense of the politics here is that the main reason ULA is considering the AR-1 is because of heavy political pressure. Nonetheless, it makes sense for them to hold off from a final decision when they have two competitors.

The story suggests however that Aeroject Rocketdyne itself lacks confidence in the engine. It wants to renegotiate its Air Force contract so that it doesn’t have to invest any of its own money on development. This suggests the company no longer expects to get any contracts for it, and thus doesn’t want to spend any of its own money on it. With that kind lack of commitment, the Air Force would be foolish to change the deal.

The second story outlines how the Air Force is now committing real money for buying launch contracts with smallsat rocket companies, something it has hinted it wanted to do for the past year. The idea is for them to depend on numerous small and cheap satellites, capable of quick launch, givingthem a cushion and redundancy should an enemy nation attack their satellites. It will also likely save them money in the long run.

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Spanish company gets grant to develop smallsat rocket

The competition heats up: A Spanish company has gotten a $2.4 million grant from the European Commission to develop a smallsat rocket.

The EC Horizon 2020 funds bring the Elche, Spain-based startup to more than 9 million euro raised to build the Arion 1 sounding rocket and the Arion 2 orbital rocket. PLD Space co-founder and chief business officer Raúl Verdú said in a Jan. 10 statement that the company anticipates “the closing of an A2 investment round of 8 million Euro very soon.

PLD Space anticipates a first launch of Arion 1 in 2019, followed by the Arion 2 rocket in 2021. Both debut missions have slipped by one year from the company’s previous estimates. Around 70 percent of the technology needed for Arion 1 will overlap with Arion 2, according to PLD Space. The company hopes to make both rockets reusable using a mixture of parachutes and propulsive landing.

I haven’t done a detailed survey, but I think this brings the number of smallsat rockets under development right now to at least six: Rocket Lab, Japan’s SS-520, China’s Kaituozhe-2, Vector, Interorbital and PLD Space. Russia and India have also said they plan to develop a small rocket for this market, though no details yet exist.

I have been repeatedly told by other space experts that it makes no financial sense to launch smallsats on single small rockets. Yet, we now have numerous companies and investment dollars going to develop such rockets. I think that this only illustrates how little trust everyone should place in experts (even me!).

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Air Force to shift focus to smallsat constellations

The head of the the Air Force’s Strategic Command revealed this past weekend that he wants the military to quickly shift its focus to buying small satellite constellations.

As one of nine U.S. combatant commanders, Hyten has a say in how the Pentagon plans investments in new technology. With regard to military satellites, STRATCOM will advocate for a change away from “exquisite” costly systems that take years to develop in favor of “more resilient, more distributed capabilities.” This is the thinking of the new “space enterprise vision” adopted by the Air force and the National Reconnaissance Office, Hyten said. “That vision is about defending ourselves. In that vision you won’t find any of those big, exquisite, long-term satellites.”

“I’ve made a call at U.S. Strategic Command that we’ll embrace that as a vision of the future because I think it’s the correct one,” he added. STRATCOM will “drive requirements,” Hyten noted, “And, as a combatant commander, I won’t support the development any further of large, big, fat, juicy targets. I won’t support that,” he insisted. “We are going to go down a different path. And we have to go down that path quickly.”

Makes sense to me. Not only will the Air Force save money, but their satellite assets will be harder to attack and easier to sustain and replace should they be attacked.

For the satellite industry this shift will accelerate the growth of the smallsat industry, and provide a lot more business for the new smallsat rocket industry that is now emerging.

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Rocket Lab preps for 2nd flight of Electron

Capitalism in space: Smallsat rocket company Rocket Lab is preparing for the second test flight of its rocket Electron, now set for October.

The test flight will also carry four commercial nanosats.

Both Planet and Spire — two companies that operate small satellites in orbit — will have payloads on the Electron’s second test flight, dubbed “Still Testing.” The rocket will carry two of Planet’s Dove satellites, designed to image Earth, as well as two of Spire’s Lemur-2 satellites that track weather and ship traffic.

The company also states that if this second flight is successful, they might forego a third test flight and move directly to commercial operations.

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Lockheed Martin unveils standardized satellite lineup

Capitalism in space: In its new effort to upgrade its satellite business to compete in the new satellite business, Lockheed Martin today unveiled a new line-up of standardized satellite buses which customers could then build their specific satellites around.

The core elements of each bus will retain commonality with other buses for a wide range of components, including propulsion, reaction wheels, gimbals, power regulation, solar arrays, battery technology, thermal control and software and avionics. Such component commonality, Sears said, will enable the company to leverage its supply chain more effectively. Lockheed software systems will also make each bus rapidly reconfigurable, depending on the particular mission need or type of satellite.

The smallest member of the new lineup is the LM 50 series of flexible nanosat buses. Weighing 10 to 100 kilograms, the spacecraft are being develop with Terran Orbital, which, Sears said, offers advanced nanosat technology and operational experience that Lockheed lacks. Lockheed Martin Ventures announced in June an unspecified “strategic investment” in Terran Orbital, a nanosatellite manufacturer.

It is very clear that the company is anticipating a boom in smallsats, and is trying to market itself as the go-to place for having those satellites built.

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Federal bureaucracy prevents satellite launch

We’re here to help you! A suite of 8 private commercial cubesats that the Air Force had agreed to launch as secondary payloads on the August 26 launch of a Minotaur rocket were blocked from launch by FAA bureaucracy.

The “interagency partner” that appeared to raise objections was the Federal Aviation Administration, which issued the launch license for the mission. “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not approve Orbital ATK’s request for a license modification to include commercial cubesats on the upcoming ORS-5 launch mission,” Guthrie said. “As a result, Orbital ATK decided not to include commercial cubesats on the launch.”

Asked if the FAA placed any conditions or restrictions on the ORS-5 mission launched on the Minotaur 4, agency spokesman Hank Price said the FAA issued Orbital ATK a license Feb. 10 to launch government payloads on the Minotaur 4 from Cape Canaveral. The launch license contains any and all conditions on the license, Price said, and the FAA does not comment on the “existence or status of launch license applications or modifications until the FAA makes a final decision regarding those requests.”

Industry sources believe the FAA never formally rejected a proposed license modification for the cubesats because it did not go through the official process, but it was informally clear that the agency would have rejected such a modification had it been formally submitted.

Spire officials are trying to figure out why there was any issue at all about commercial cubesats on this launch. “If Spire chose this launch in the place of another commercial offering, I would understand the industry’s concern about fair competition,” Barna said. “But no existing U.S. launch company or new entrant was offering a similar launch. The fundamental intent of the policy is to keep competition fair, and competition just wasn’t a factor here.”

Spire’s problems here demonstrates the difficulties smallsat companies have getting their satellites in orbit, which explains the emergence of a new smallsat rocket industry. The company’s difficulties also illustrates why the launch industry should always be opposed to giving too much regulatory power to government. In this case it really appears that the launch license was denied merely because the bureaucrats involved with approving it at the FAA simply didn’t want to bother dealing with it.

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Cubesat builder becomes cubesat operator as well

Capitalism in space: Cubesat builder Clyde Space has commissioned its first satellite communications ground station, with three more planned.

Essentially, the company appears to be moving to fill a need expressed by its satellite customers. After building their satellite for them, their customers still need someone to run it for them, and the satellite maker is ideally positioned to win that role.

This story also illustrates the continuing simplification of the technology of the satellite industry. Ground stations used to be big complicated facilities, requiring big dishes and lots of land. Now they can simply install an antenna on the roof of a building.

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Lockheed Martin begins construction of new satellite factory

Capitalism in space: Lockheed Martin has begun construction of a $350 million satellite factory in Colorado, with expected completion in 2020.

At the moment, Lockheed does not have a competitive rocket. Moreover, its only big space project is Orion, which might never fly more than twice, if that. Thus, this shift to satellites makes some sense, as it will be difficult now for the company to gain market share in the launch and manned spacecraft markets. It is too far behind. However, there is a new industry developing in smallsats, and Lockheed is well positioned to get in at the start.

Update: I do this all the time, but I made a mistake here and assigned the Delta family of rockets to Lockheed Martin. For some reason I make this mistake often, switching Atlas 5 and Delta and Lockheed Martin and Boeing. I apologize for the error.

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Has India cut its cubesat launch prices?

Capitalism in space: A complex analysis of India’s recent launch prices suggests that ISRO reduced its cubesat launch prices when it launched a record-setting 103 satellites on the most recent PSLV launch.

The key paragraph however is this:

Small-satellite owners have long complained that the PSLV, whose reliability has been established in the market, has been slow to increase its launch tempo at a time of surging cubesat production. For the moment, none of these satellite customers’ launch options provide predictable launch cadence at affordable prices.

That may be about to change as several dozen vehicles designed specifically to accommodate the growing cubesat market are preparing to enter operations. Not all are likely to succeed in establishing a foothold, but the sheer number of them is impressive:

That makes it all the more important for ISRO’s Antrix Corp., the agency’s commercial arm, to cement a reputation for launch regularity and low prices.

In other words, because a flock of new smallsat launch companies, such as Rocket Lab, Vector, and Virgin Orbit, are about to enter the market ISRO is suddenly feeling the pressure, which is why they have cut prices as well as started to up their launch rate.

Isn’t competition wonderful?

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Surrey Satellite closing U.S. factory

Capitalism in space: Surrey Satellite Technology, one of the first companies to build smallsats and cubesats, is closing its U.S. factory in Colorado and concentrating its satellite work once again in the UK.

It appears the company might have gotten a little fat and lazy, and has allowed the competition to begin passing it by:

Parker said the exact number of people SST-US will let go has not been determined. SSTL’s decision to layoff workers in the U.S. is not related to the decline in geostationary telecommunications satellite orders that triggered a reduction in workers at Space Systems Loral, Parker said. The majority of SSTL’s business is in remote sensing, navigation and science — spacecraft typically found in non-geosynchronous orbits.

Instead, Parker said it was more out of concern that the smallsat movement the company had championed for years had picked up steam and was moving without SSTL. “We had grown slightly fatter, slightly more complacent, so we are doing a lot of work on our organization. We started last year and changed our organizational structure internally. We changed the way our teams are organized so we now have a much flatter structure with more autonomy,” she said.

SSTL is not reducing its headcount in the U.K., Parker said.

This kind of reminds me of ULA’s recent effort to streamline its operations, faced with competition from SpaceX. Here, Surrey is finding itself getting beat by a lot of new players, and had found it needs to reshape itself to survive.

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Vector obtains $21 million in funding

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Vector has obtained $21 million in new funding, making it possible for it to accelerate its test rocket schedule.

With this most recent round of funding, Vector will accelerate the company’s upcoming flight test series and launch orbital customer missions in early 2018. Vector’s next launch is planned for Summer 2017, making it the first launch ever from the historic Spaceport Camden in Georgia, where NASA tested rocket engines in the 1960s. In addition to flight test launch activities, Vector plans to develop its first GalacticSky satellites and break ground on a world-class rocket factory in Pima County, Arizona.

It seems that the smallsat market is going to get very crowded in the next few years. As much as I am in favor of this, we must also recognize that it is likely that the market will not be able to support all the companies now pushing to grab that business. Some are going to fail, though I have no idea at this point which companies that will be.

Not that this is a bad thing. Competition requires many companies. It also requires failure, balanced with much success.

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