Tag Archives: smallsats

Relativity gets a second launch contract

Capitalism in space: The startup rocket company Relativity today announced the signing of a second launch contract for its as-yet untested Terran 1 rocket.

Relativity, the world’s first autonomous rocket factory and launch services leader for satellite constellations, today announced a partnership with mu Space, the innovative Thai satellite and space technology company, to launch a satellite to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) on Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket, the world’s first and only 3D printed rocket.

The first contract was with the well-established satellite company Telesat. The rocket, Terran 1, is scheduled for its first orbital test flight at the end of 2020.

So, where does Relativity stand among the leaders in the new smallsat commercial rocket industry? Let’s do a quick review.

Rocket Lab is of course far in the lead. It has launched four times, and its Electron rocket is now operational.

Second in this race is probably Virgin Orbit. The company has won several launch contracts, and says it will begin launch tests momentarily of its LauncherOne air-launched rocket.

Next comes Vector Launch, though some might argue it is ahead of Virgin Orbit. This company has obtained a large amount of investment capital, has completed two test suborbital launches, has a number of launch contractsl, and hopes to do its first orbital launch later this year.

After these three companies there is a pack of rocket companies, all with investment capital, tentative launch contracts, and rockets that are only in the development stages. These include Exos Aerospace, Relativity, and Firefly, with Exos probably in the lead as it has already test flown its reusable SARGE suborbital rocket.

This list does not include the pseudo-private Chinese rocket companies, OneSpace, ISpace, LinkSpace, Landspace, and ExSpace, all of whom are independently developing smallsat rockets using Chinese investment capital but working under the supervision of the Chinese government. Several of these companies have attempted orbital launches. As yet none have succeeded.

Nor have I included India, which has announced it is going to build its own smallsat rocket to supplement its larger PSLV rocket in order to maintain its market share in this new smallsat industry. I also have left out a number of European companies, all of whom are far behind but nonetheless exist and are beginning development.

Other then the already-operating Rocket Lab, all of these companies are predicting their first rocket launches within the next three years. Some will succeed. Some will not. Nonetheless, the launch pace as we move into the 2020s is likely to get quite interesting.

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Smallsat rocket company Relativity gets its first launch contract

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Relativity has signed its first launch contract, even though they have yet to complete even one test flight.

Their chief executive nails the importance of this on the head:

In an interview, Tim Ellis, chief executive of Relativity, said the contract is the first customer for the Terran 1 that the company has announced. He said Relativity previously signed a contract with another customer that has yet to be announced.

“What’s really notable about this and why it’s so important for Relativity and the industry is that this is the first time that Telesat, or any major global satellite operator, has selected a completely venture-based aerospace startup for launch services,” Ellis said, noting that the companies had been in extensive discussions prior to announcing this contract. “The credibility of aligning with Telesat we believe is huge for what Relativity is developing.” [emphasis mine]

Their rocket, Terran-1, is not scheduled for its first orbital flight until the end of 2020. Yet, Telesat has given this company a contract. I suspect that contract has a variety of exit clauses, but I also wonder if it gives Telesat some interest in the company in exchange for backing it at this early stage.

Either way, the demand for launch services created by these proposed new smallsat constellations is forcing the satellite companies to make deals that they might never have considered in a less booming market.

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OneSpace to attempt first orbital launch this week

OneSpace, one of a bunch of companies in China attempting to launch smallsats, is expected to attempt its first orbital launch this week.

The article gives a nice overview of the present competition in China between several of these smallsat private companies, dubbed OneSpace, LandSpace, ISpace, and LinkSpace. All are funded through private investment capital, so all claim to be a private companies. However, nothing done in space in China is done without the approval and direction of the government. They might be designed as private companies, but they are also designed expressly to serve the needs of the Chinese government. That their company names are all so similar only strengthens this conclusion.

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OneWeb raises $1.25 billion

Capitalism in space: Following the launch of the first six satellites for its 650 satellite constellation to provide worldwide internet services, OneWeb today announced that it has successfully raised $1.25 billion in new investment capital.

…it has secured its largest fundraising round to date with the successful raise of $1.25 billion in new capital. This brings the total funds raised to $3.4 billion. This round was led by SoftBank Group Corp., Grupo Salinas, Qualcomm Technologies Inc., and the Government of Rwanda.

The new funds, following the successful first launch of OneWeb’s satellites, enable the company to accelerate the development of the first truly global communications network by 2021.

…OneWeb’s satellites, produced through its joint venture with Airbus doing business as “OneWeb Satellites”, will ramp-up production this spring at its new, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Exploration Park, Florida. Following the company’s successful launch of satellites on February 27th, OneWeb will embark on the largest satellite launch campaign in history. Starting in Q4, OneWeb will begin monthly launches of more than 30 satellites at a time, creating an initial constellation of 650 satellites to enable full global coverage. After this first phase, OneWeb will add more satellites to its constellation to meet growing demands.

This puts OneWeb significantly ahead of everyone else, including SpaceX, in the race to launch the first space-based system for providing internet services. Their planned launch pace also illustrates why there is a flood of new smallsat rocket companies. They, and others, have a clear need for launch services, which presently cannot be provided by the existing launch companies.

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Hawaiian activists say “No!” to smallsat spaceport

The coming dark age: At a meeting to obtain public feedback on a proposed smallsat spaceport in Hawaii, activists were almost all hostile or opposed to the project.

There might be justified reasons to oppose the spaceport, but since the environmental assessment is not yet published, it is unclear at this point what those reasons might be. The reasons cited by these opponents, noise and pollution, don’t seem serious. The spaceport being proposed is for smallsat rockets, rockets that are very small (only a few times larger than the biggest model rockets). Even if they launch weekly these rockets will not cause serious noise or pollution issues.

Thus, what I see here are a bunch of close-minded luddites afraid of new things, and determined to block those new things from happening.

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One smallsat satellite company hires another

Capitalism in space: One smallsat satellite company, Exolaunch, has hired another smallsat company, Momentus, to provide it with in-space transportation capabilities.

Exolaunch, the German launch services provider formerly known as ECM Space, signed a contract to pay in-space transportation startup Momentus more than $6 million to move satellites in low Earth orbit in 2020 with a service called Vigoride and from low Earth to geosynchronous orbit in 2021 with Vigoride Extended.

With Vigoride, Exolaunch will send “cubesat and microsatellite constellations to multiple orbits, giving clients an unprecedented flexibility of satellite deployment, reducing the price of launch, and giving access to orbits not typical for ridesharing vehicles,” Dmitriy Bogdanov, Exolaunch chief executive, said in a statement. “We also plan to deliver smallsats to geosynchronous orbit using the Vigoride Extended service. Momentus will enable us to service a larger segment of the market by enabling our customers to reach custom orbits in an efficient and cost-effective manner.”

Essentially, Momentus is building a cubesat-sized rocket engine that can be used to transport other cubesats from one orbit to another. The engine apparently uses water as the fuel in a ion-type engine, and will be tested in space for the first time in the next few months.

Momentus’s business plan seems quite clever. Up until now smallsats, especially those launched as secondary payloads, have not had a way to change their orbits, once deployed from their rocket. Momentus is offering this capability, at the very moment we are about to see a boom in the number of smallsats launched.

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Chinese cubesat snaps picture of Earth and Moon from deep space

The Moon and Earth

A interplanetary cubesat, Longjiang-2, launched with China’s communications relay satellite that they are using to communicate with Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 on the far side of the Moon, has successfully taken a picture of both the Moon and Earth, as shown in the picture on the right.

Longjiang-2 is confirming what the MarCo cubesats proved from Mars, that cubesats can do interplanetary work.

And the picture is cool also. This was taken on February 3, when the entire face of the Moon’s far side is facing the Sun, illuminating it all. This timing also meant that the globe of the Earth would be entirely lit.

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Maxar cancels its DARPA satellite servicing mission

Capitalsm in space: Maxar today announced it is canceling its DARPA mission to develop and fly a robotic mission aimed at servicing geosynchronous satellites.

Maxar Technologies’ Space Systems Loral division terminated an agreement to build DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites spacecraft Jan. 30, leading to a potential recompete of the program. Maxar said it also canceled a contract with Space Infrastructure Services, a company it created that would have commercialized the RSGS servicer after a DARPA demonstration, starting with an in-orbit refueling mission for fleet operator SES. Both were awarded in 2017.

…The cancellations come amid an ongoing divestment of SSL’s geostationary satellite manufacturing business, which has weighed down Maxar’s financial performance due to a protracted slump in commercial orders.

More background information can be found here.

It seems that the industry’s increasing shift from a few large geosynchronous satellites to small smallsats in low Earth orbit is the real cause of this decision. Maxar has realized that there won’t be that many satellites in the future to service, since the smallsat design doesn’t require it. Smallsats aren’t designed for long life. Instead, you send them them up in large numbers, frequently. Their small size and the arrival of smallsat rockets to do this makes this model far cheaper than launching expensive big geosynchronous satellites that are expected to last ten to fifteen years and would be worth repairing.

Thus, the business model for commercial robotic servicing has apparently vanished, from Maxar’s perspective. Other servicing projects however continue. From the second link:

Northrop Grumman said it plans to launch its first Mission Extension Vehicle to dock with Intelsat-901 and take over orbital station-keeping duties, extending the satellite’s service life by several more years.

Another up and coming player, Effective Space, is developing a satellite servicing vehicle called Space Drone, to provide satellite life extension services.

And SSL [a Maxar subdivision] is under contract to NASA to build the Restore-L satellite servicing spacecraft, slated to launch in 2020. Restore-L will be owned by NASA, however, and will operate in low Earth orbit, not the geosynchronous arc as was the plan for RSGS.

The last mission is intriguing because it could lay the groundwork for a robotic servicing mission to Hubble. It is being led by the same NASA division that ran all of the shuttle servicing missions to Hubble, and is using many of the engineering designs that division proposed when it was trying to sell a Hubble robot servicing mission back in 2004.

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New report predicts the boom in smallsats will continue in 2019

Capitalism in space: A new analysis of the state of the smallsat industry predicts that the boom in smallsats will continue in 2019.

Coming off an excellent performance in 2018, SpaceWorks analysts project between 294 – 393 nano/microsatellites (1 – 50 kg) will launch globally in 2019, an 18% increase over last year. Of the 262 spacecraft SpaceWorks predicted to launch in 2018, 253 actually launched. “SpaceWorks showed unprecedented accuracy in last year’s forecast, with our prediction coming within 5% of actual nano/microsatellites launched.” stated Caleb Williams, Lead Economic Analyst at SpaceWorks, “Changes to our forecasting methodology, in combination with greater launch consistency and better execution on the part of small satellite operators contributed to our ability to accurately forecast market growth.”

2019 projections remain strong and have been updated to reflect the advancements of dedicated small satellite launch vehicles, changing attitudes of civil and military operators, and the rapid progress of commercial satellite IoT ventures. SpaceWorks analysts continue to gain confidence in the small satellite market as operators begin promising less and delivering more. “The rapid progress of operators focusing on IoT applications is expected to continue and communications applications are expected to quadruple their market share over the next 5 years” says Stephanie DelPozzo, SpaceWorks Economic Analyst, “overall, the maturing capabilities of small satellites are expected to open additional opportunities for growth and keep investors interested in the market during the near-term.” [emphasis mine]

The phrase I’ve highlighted is significant. It appears big government and commercial investors have finally jumped on the smallsat bandwagon after years of resistance.

The report also notes that the number of smallsat launches in the past five years has grown by 150%.

Everything in the full report confirms my sense that we are seeing a bifurcation in the aerospace industry, with the the unmanned branch producing smaller components while the manned space branch learning how to affordably build larger.

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Making smallsat rockets at Vector

Payload structure for Vector's Vector-R rocket

In the coming year we should see the spectacular first launches from two smallsat rocket companies, Vector and Virgin Orbit, joining Rocket Lab (which has already launched successfully three times) to form an entirely new industry of small rockets designed specifically for launching cubesat and nanosat satellites, what I call smallsats.

The image on the right shows the payload adapter fitting for Vector’s Vector-R rocket. The red and silver rectangular objects are dummy cubesat payloads. Overall, this structure, only about three feet high, will allow Vector to place as many as eight smallsats into orbit on one launch.

The picture was taken yesterday during a tour of Vector’s facilities given to me personally by Vector’s CEO, Jim Cantrell. During my previous tour of Vector back in March 2017, Cantrell had described the company’s planned test launch schedule as follows:

The company is presently in the testing phase leading up to their first orbital launches, which they hope to start in 2018. Right now they are building a series of full scale versions of their Vector-R rocket with a dummy second stage. The idea is to do a string of suborbital test flights, the first of which will fly in about a week from Mohave in California, with the second flying from the Georgia spaceport in Camden County.

The first two launches occurred as promised, first in Mojave on May 3, 2017 and then in Georgia on August 3, 2017. An announcement in October 2017 set the launch of the third test first for January 2018 but that launch did not happen. In March 2018 Vector announced it planned to launch two cubesats into orbit from Alaska by the end of 2018, but this did not happen either.

Because of the delays, with no explanation, I was beginning to harbor doubts about the company’s status. Last week Cantrell gave a talk at Tucson’s Space Business Roundtable, and I went to that talk to find out what the issues were as well as attempt to find out when they did plan to launch.

Cantrell not only filled me in on the details, but generously offered to give me another personal tour of Vector’s facilities, which had grown significantly since my 2017 tour. Then, Vector employed only thirty people and was based in a small warehouse. Now it employs more than 150, and has two much larger facilities in Tucson as well as one in California (where its mission control is based).

First let me outline the company’s launch status.
» Read more

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FCC fines company $900K for unapproved satellite launch

The FCC has issued a $900K fine against the smallsat company Swarm for its unlicensed launch in January on an Indian rocket of four smallsats.

Along with paying a massive fine, Swarm has agreed to submit reports to the FCC before every satellite launch it wants to make for the next three years. These reports must include all of the details about the launch vehicle that will carry the satellites, the time and location of the launch, and contact information for who is coordinating the launch. And Swarm has to do this a lot, too. Reports need to be submitted within five days of Swarm purchasing a ride on a rocket, or within 45 days of the flight. Additional reports must be submitted when the satellites are shipped to be integrated on the rocket, whenever the satellites are actually integrated, and around the time the launch is supposed to take place.

Within the next two months, Swarm must also establish its own “compliance plan” and appoint a compliance officer to make sure the company adheres to all of the regulations surrounding a satellite launch. This entails crafting clearly defined procedures and checklists that every employee must follow to confirm that the FCC’s licensing requirements are being met.

I have very mixed feelings about this. While it is important that the FCC make sure U.S. satellites are compliant with the Outer Space Treaty and that satellite makers and launch companies do not do things willy-nilly without some common sense coordination, this settlement, with its complex bureaucratic paperwork requirements, strikes me more as a power play by the agency to tell everyone that the government will rule here.

At the same time, I can understand the FCC’s concern. We are about to see a smallsat revolution, with tens of thousands of these satellites being built and launched by numerous big and small companies. The FCC wanted it very clear to everyone the need to get that licensing done properly. This settlement makes that clear.

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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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