Lockheed Martin to move its smallsat rocket launch project to the UK

Capitalism in space: Lockheed Martin announced today that it is moving its Pathfnder smallsat rocket operation to a new spaceport in Shetland in the United Kingdom, with the first launch targeted for ’24.

This Shetland site is a different UK spaceport than the Sutherland site, also in Scotland, where both Lockheed Martin and the British company Orbex also hope to launch.

Defense Department cancels small rocket contract awards

The Department of Defense yesterday withdrew the small contracts it had given to six small rocket companies on June 16 using funds allocated to help companies impacted by the Wuhan flu panic lock downs.

According to multiple industry sources, the selection of the six companies drew widespread criticism because it was unclear how these suppliers were selected over others. When contracts are awarded without an open competition, DoD by law has to file a “Justification & Approval” document explaining why an award was sole-sourced. No J&A documents were filed in this case.

This certainly appears fishy, as there are far more than six startups trying to capture market share in the smallsat launch market. Defense could now allow companies to competitively bid on this money, estimated to be about $115 million total, but it is unclear whether it will.

A bunch of new contracts for smallsat rocket companies

Capitalism in space: Two news stories outlined today a bunch of new launch contracts for a number of smallsat rocket companies, with Rocket Lab getting the biggest share.

In the first award, the six companies were Rocket Lab, Aevum, Astra, X-Bow, Space Vector and VOX Space, of which only Rocket Lab is presently operational. The deal calls for the launch within the next 24 months of two cubesats from each company The money was authorized under the March Wuhan flu stimulus bill, and is apparently meant as reimbursement for each company’s losses because of the lock downs. No contract amount however was provided,

The second award to Rocket Lab came from the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and is likely a reward for the company’s successful launch of three NRO satellites on June 12th. It also might involve two almost simultaneous launches on two different launchpads.

In a demonstration of its responsive launch capabilities, Rocket Lab said in a statement announcing the contract that the two launches will take place “within weeks” of each other. However, in an interview, Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck said he hopes the time between the two launches is much less than that. “We’re looking forward to having two vehicles sitting on two pads simultaneously, and we’ll see how close together we can actually get them to launch,” he said. “We’re planning internally to see how close we can get those two together.

The company is also hoping in the fall to attempt their first recovery of a first stage.

LauncherOne flight terminates early

Capitalism in space: The first demo flight of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket ended almost immediately after the rocket made a clean separation from its 747 first stage.

Cosmic Girl took off just before 12 PM PT (3 PM ET) from Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. The aircraft was piloted by Chief Test Pilot Kelly Latimer, along with her co-pilot Todd Ericson. The aircraft then flew to its target release point, where LauncherOne did manage a “clean release” from the carrier craft as planned at around 12:50 PM PT (3:50 PM ET), but Virgin noted just a few minutes later that the mission was subsequently “terminated.”

No one was hurt in the failure, but no word yet on what happened.

They had warned that this first test flight might not reach orbit. Nor should anyone be surprised, as first flights of rockets often fail. Nonetheless, this failure will hurt the company effort to gain launch contracts.

The coming small satellite revolution

Today I received a press release from the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), announcing a half-day symposium in Washington, D.C. on March 26, 2020 entitled ““The SmallSat Revolution: Doing More with Less.” The announcement was an invitation for the working press to register and attend, noting that the speakers will include, among others, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator science, Jeffrey Mamber, president of NanoRacks, and Patricia Cooper of SpaceX.

As interesting as this might sound at first glance, I will not attend. For one thing, it is on the other side of the continent, and I can’t afford to fly cross country for such a short meeting. For another, I don’t see the point. I attended a lot of these DC symposiums when I lived in Maryland, and though they were often very educational and the free food (paid for almost always by the taxpayer) was always enjoyable, I routinely found them somewhat lacking in newsworthy content.

Thirdly, and most important, yesterday I attended a much more newsworthy one day conference here in Tucson on exactly the same subject, dubbed the Arizona Academic CubeSat Symposium. Unlike the Washington event above — which will likely be a mostly superficial look at the burgeoning cubesat industry — yesterday’s symposium was focused on letting students and scientists describe actual and very ambitious cubesat projects presently under construction or design.

In less than seven hours I saw the following:
» Read more

Lloyd’s introduces new insurance policy for smallsats

Capitalism in space: The insurance company Lloyd’s today introduced a new insurance policy expressly designed for the emerging smallsat launch industry.

The solution – called “Llift Space” – is only available in the Lloyd’s market and allows customers to cover their assets from the pre-launch phase, including transit and placement on the launch vehicle, through to the launch phase and in-orbit operation. It is designed for satellites that weigh less than 300 kilograms (661.4 pounds).

The policy is modular so customers can choose the elements within each phase that are most relevant to their coverage needs.

The product is backed by a consortium of 18 syndicates, led by Brit and Hiscox MGA, with $25 million capacity per risk, and is targeted at the NewSpace sector.

NewSpace is characterized by lower cost, easier routes to space, opening up the sector to private enterprise, wealthy entrepreneurs and innovative start-ups. This is increasing the need for space insurance.

This action is a strong endorsement by the investment business in the future of the new smallsat launch industry.

Too many smallsat rockets to count

Capitalism in space: According to a report by a Northrop Grumman engineer who has been trying to list these things, the number of companies trying to develop small rockets for the burgeoning smallsat market has grown so large that it is now difficult to track.

Of the 148 small launch vehicles on a popular industry watch list, about 40 efforts “are likely dead but the watch list continues to grow,” Carlos Niederstrasser, a Northrop Grumman master systems engineer, said at the 2019 International Astronautical Congress here.

The problem for Niederstrasser and anyone trying to keep up with the market is that the list continues to grow. “Every time I kill off one [launch vehicle], two more show up,” he said.

…U.S. companies are responsible for 21 of the vehicles Niederstrasser considers active development programs. Seven are from China, four from Spain and three from the United Kingdom. Germany, India and Japan each have two small rocket development programs. Many other countries have a single effort underway.

We should see the shake-out in this new market take place during the next five years. By then at least four rockets should be operational, and the smallsat technology more mature and capable of many things now done by larger satellites.

Relativity gets another launch contract

Capitalsm in space: The smallsat rocket company Relativity has signed another launch contract, this time with Momentus, a company making orbital smallsat tugs capable of transporting smallsats to higher orbits.

The launch agreement, announced during Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week here, covers one launch of Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket in 2021 with an option for up to five additional launches. The companies did not disclose the terms of the agreement, but Relativity offers the Terran 1 for a list price of $10 million.

The 2021 launch will fly Momentus’ Vigoride Extended tug, capable of carrying up to 350 kilograms of satellites. The tug will transport the satellites from an initial low Earth orbit to geostationary orbit using its water plasma thruster technology.

This is Relativity’s fourth launch contract, all signed prior to their first test launch. Right now they hope to start test flights late in 2020, with their first operational flights in 2021.

Momentus meanwhile adds a capability to all these smallsat rockets, essentially providing them an upper stage that will get the smallsats they launch from low Earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit.

FCC streamlines and cuts fees for smallsat licensing

Capitalism in space: In an effort to ease its bureaucratic obstacles to private enterprise, the FCC has streamlined its licensing process for new smallsats, while cutting its licensing fees by more than 90%.

Under the optional licensing regime, which stands to take effect this year, smallsat operators with spacecraft that meet certain criteria will be able to obtain a spectrum license about twice as fast and pay only $30,000 instead of nearly $500,000. A maximum of 10 satellites at a time can be licensed under the streamline process.

…Operators will be able to use the streamlined licensing for satellites that weigh 180 kilograms or less, operate below 600 kilometers (or have propulsion) and will deorbit within six years, among other criteria.

One component of these new regulations is that they require new smallsats to never be smaller than 10 centimeters on their smallest dimension, thus essentially forbidding the launch of nanosats smaller than that.

SpaceX offers new cut-rate prices for smallsats

Capitalism in space: SpaceX yesterday announced that the company is now offering new cut-rate prices to launch smallsats on its rockets.

The company is offering rideshare opportunities for satellites weighing up to 150kg at the price of $2.25 million. The rideshare-only missions, flying aboard the company’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, will launch at regularly scheduled intervals. “SpaceX is committed to serving the commercial market as it grows and changes,” a spokesperson for the company said. “And we believe we can address the needs of small satellite operators by offering reliable, cost-effective access to orbit through regularly scheduled, dedicated rideshare missions.”

The company has previously flown rideshare missions using its Falcon 9 rocket, but those flights were organized and integrated by a third-party provider, Spaceflight Industries. Now SpaceX will do all of that work directly for customers

This move makes SpaceX’s smallsat prices very competitive. It also makes it easier for smallsat companies to bypass China’s semi-private commercial companies, thus avoiding the risk of China stealing their technology.

Suborbital rocket company has launch failure

Capitalism in space: Gilmour Space Technologies, one of the numerous new rocket companies aimed at capturing the emerging smallsat market, experienced a launch failure on July 29 just prior to lift-off of its suborbital rocket.

At T-7 seconds to launch, the test rocket suffered an anomaly that resulted in the premature end of the mission. Initial investigations show that a pressure regulator in the oxidiser tank had failed to maintain the required pressure, and this caused the upper half of the rocket to be ejected as helium escaped.

On the positive side, there were no explosions due to the safe nature of hybrid rocket engines, and no observable damage to the engine. (The white plume seen here is steam.) Moreover, despite failure to launch, the team did successfully test Gilmour Space’s mobile launch platform and mission control centre, which had journeyed over 1,800 km to the test site.

It appears the failure was from a piece of equipment provided by an outside contractor.

Virgin Orbit successfully completes rocket drop from 747

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit today successfully completed a drop of a dummy rocket from the fuselage of its 747.

Although the rocket was “fully loaded,” as the company put it, its engines never fired—nor were they meant to. Instead, the rocket fell freely to Earth so the company could see how it performed during its first few seconds of freefall. This was the last major test for Virgin Orbit’s air-launch system, which will launch rockets from a gutted jumbo jet, known as Cosmic Girl, to boost small satellites into orbit. It’s a complicated maneuver, but it could significantly reduce the costs of getting to space.

The article says they plan their first orbital test flight in the fall. Whether today’s success and that launch can get the company back on track after OneWeb cancelled the bulk of its contract remains to be seen. If they succeed in launching to orbit this year that will make them the only operational competitor to Rocket Lab in the smallsat market, with a system that might be cheaper.

Russian Soyuz rocket successfully launches 33 satellites into orbit

In its first Vostochny launch in 2019, Russia today used its Soyuz rocket to successfully launch a variety of weather, engineering, and Earth observation satellites totaling 33 into orbit.

As I write this the satellites are in orbit but have not yet been deployed by the rocket’s Fregat upper stage, a process that will take several hours as it moves them into a variety of orbits.

Many of the smaller satellites on this rockets are commercial cubesats, and are Russia’s effort to regain some of its lost commercial business that had been captured by SpaceX. They are also a sign of the changing launch business. Previously Russia’s commercial flights were all on its larger Proton rocket because the satellites were larger. Now the business is shifting to the smaller and recently more reliable Soyuz, because smaller satellites are beginning to dominate the industry.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

9 China
8 SpaceX
6 Russia
5 Europe (Arianespace)
3 India
3 Rocket Lab

The U.S. continues to lead China 14 to 9 in the national rankings.

Smallsat launch company breaks ground on satellite-flinging test facility

Capitalism in space: SpinLaunch, a new smallsat launch company that proposed to put its customer’s satellites into orbit by “flinging” them upward, has broken ground on a facility where it will test this radical launch technology.

The company broke ground yesterday (May 7) at Spaceport America in New Mexico, marking the start of construction on a $7 million flight-test facility.

And this will be no ordinary launch pad. SpinLaunch is developing a kinetic-energy-based system that will fling small spacecraft skyward without firing up a rocket engine (though traditional chemical propulsion does come into play later in the flight). If all goes according to plan, SpinLaunch will eventually be able to loft satellites cheaply and rapidly — up to five times per day, at about $250,000 a pop, company representatives have said.

They have already raised $40 million in investment capital, and hope to do their first commercial launch in 2022.

While this company is far behind the leaders in the smallsat launch race, it very much seems to represent the second wave of competition. The first wave is generally using tried and true concepts of rocketry, albeit applied with modern technology and some innovation to lower the costs. The second wave will involve companies trying to beat that first wave with new and radical ideas that will lower the costs even more. SpinLaunch appears to be in that group.

Relativity gets third launch contract

Capitalism in space: The new startup rocket company Relativity announced yesterday the signing of its third launch contract with Spaceflight, a company that until now has mostly specialized in arranging secondary payloads on big rockets for smallsat companies.

The launch services agreement between the two companies includes an order for one launch of Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket in the third quarter of 2021, with an option for an unspecified number of additional launches. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, although Relativity has publicized a list price of $10 million for the rocket.

Spaceflight will use those launches for dedicated rideshare missions, aggregating a set of small satellites to fly on the rocket.

The previous two contracts were with the long-established satellite communications company Telesat and a newer satellite company from Thailand called mu Space.

Relativity’s ability to get three launch contracts for a rocket that has not yet flown, no less tested, is somewhat puzzling. There are other companies, Rocket Lab, Vector, Firefly, and Virgin Orbit, that are either operational or have already tested prototype rockets or engines.

I suspect all the contracts have easy escape clauses, and are conditional depending on the company’s successful test program. I also suspect that the deals gave significant price breaks to all three companies for their willingness to sign under these circumstances.

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 contracts, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

1 2 3