New space savers – small satel­lites


LOS AN­GE­LES – Sud­denly, ev­ery­one from the US gov­ern­ment, commercial satel­lite com­pa­nies, uni­ver­si­ties and even high school stu­dents needs to have a small satel­lite.

And that is fu­el­ing an­other boom, in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and across the West, in com­pa­nies ded­i­cated to giv­ing the satel­lites a ride to space.

By one es­ti­mate, 210 satel­lites weigh­ing less than 110 pounds will be launched this year, to do such things as map the Earth, ex­pand broad­band ac­cess and track pack­ages on ship­ping ves­sels. That’s up from just 25 launches in 2010. The num­ber is ex­pected to dou­ble again in five years.

In the last six months, at least half a dozen new launch ve­hi­cle firms aimed at the small satel­lite mar­ket have cropped up, said Marco Cac­eres, se­nior space an­a­lyst for Teal Group, an aero­space and de­fense anal­y­sis com­pany.

The ever-grow­ing list in­cludes Fire­fly Space Sys­tems in Cedar Park, Texas; Rocket Lab in Los An­ge­les and Richard Bran­son’s Vir­gin Galac­tic, best known for its space tourism en­deav­ors.

In a quiet in­dus­trial park near Long Beach Air­port where war­planes were once built around the clock, Vir­gin Galac­tic is mak­ing a satel­lite-launch­ing rocket that will drop from the wing of a 747.

“There is strong con­fi­dence in the aero­space com­mu­nity that small satel­lites are the way to go,” said Kevin Sagis, chief en­gi­neer for LauncherOne. “It’s an ex­cit­ing time.”

The hopes of the up­starts are bol­stered by news that com­pa­nies such as SpaceX out­side Los An­ge­les and OneWeb in Ar­ling­ton, Va., are plan­ning to launch con­stel­la­tions of hun­dreds or even thou­sands of satel­lites that would pro­vide low-cost in­ter­net ac­cess, es­pe­cially to more re­mote ar­eas of the world.

Last year, SpaceX opened an of­fice in Seat­tle where en­gi­neers will build smaller satel­lites for launch. Around the same time, Bran­son an­nounced an in­vest­ment in the OneWeb ven­ture.

“Just those two com­pa­nies alone can cre­ate a whole new mar­ket,” Cac­eres said. “And I think that’s what launch com­pa­nies are look­ing for.”

Tra­di­tional satel­lite man­u­fac­tur­ing has long been based in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Hughes Elec­tron­ics Corp. built satel­lites at its El Se­gundo fa­cil­ity out­side LA for years be­fore its space and com­mu­ni­ca­tions busi­nesses were ac­quired in 2000 by aero­space gi­ant Boe­ing Co. Boe­ing still man­u­fac­tures satel­lites in El Se­gundo.

Swarms of satel­lites are not a new idea. Huge satel­lite con­stel­la­tions were pro­posed back in the 1990s as a way to pro­vide telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions services around the globe. But en­trepreneurs badly un­der­es­ti­mated the steep cost of build­ing and blast­ing hun­dreds of satel­lites into or­bit, and the pro­posed services were un­der­cut by cheaper ground-based cel­lu­lar services.

Plans for the am­bi­tious Teledesic satel­lite con­stel­la­tion col­lapsed in the early 2000s. The net­work, which was to pro­vide high-speed in­ter­net service, was founded by cell­phone pi­o­neer Craig McCaw and gar­nered some in­vest­ment from Mi­crosoft co-founder Bill Gates, but couldn’t raise enough money to cover its high costs.

In 1999, satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany Irid­ium filed for Chap­ter 11 bank­ruptcy pro­tec­tion af­ter it signed up fewer than 50,000 cus­tomers for its global tele­phone service. The com­pany later re­or­ga­nized and its net­work of 66 satel­lites still pro­vides services.

In­dus­try play­ers say this time will be dif­fer­ent. They point to the greater di­ver­sity in satel­lite us­age now as insurance against the bust of any one par­tic­u­lar in­dus­try.

Planet Labs, for ex­am­ple, says it op­er­ates the largest fleet of Earth ob­ser­va­tion satel­lites. Data from the San Fran­cisco com­pany’s nanosatel­lites can be used to mon­i­tor farm­land and track car­bon emis­sions.

De­mand for mo­bile con­nec­tiv­ity is also greater than it ever was in the 1990s, even in pre­vi­ously un­con­nected places such as air­planes.

And new tech­nol­ogy has driven down the cost of de­vel­op­ing and launch­ing a satel­lite, aided in part by minia­tur­iza­tion; smaller satel­lites weigh less, and thus are cheaper to launch.

Tom Stroup, pres­i­dent of the Satel­lite In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion, said it’s not likely that all the satel­lite con­stel­la­tions that have been an­nounced will be launched. But he ex­pects at least one, if not more, of the pro­posed projects in each sec­tor – imag­ing, broad­band, com­mu­ni­ca­tion services – to suc­ceed.

“We live in a dif­fer­ent world than we did in the 1990s,” he said.

An­other plus for this round of satel­lite projects is that they’re more likely to be backed by the com­pa­nies’ own money, said Cac­eres of Teal Group.

“They’re not to­tally re­liant on in­vestors like they were in the 1990s,” he said. “So there’s a good chance that many of these com­pa­nies will be able to put these thou­sands of satel­lites into or­bit, and if they do, they need launch ve­hi­cles.”

Cur­rently, small satel­lites can hitch a ride by go­ing “pig­gy­back” on a rocket pur­chased by a larger com­pany and squeez­ing in where there’s space. But as­pir­ing launch providers say this method can re­strict the launch time and lo­ca­tion, as well as the or­bit where the satel­lite will be placed.

That’s where com­pa­nies like Vir­gin Galac­tic think they can suc­ceed.

The com­pany an­nounced its LauncherOne project in 2012 af­ter it saw the po­ten­tial in the small-satel­lite mar­ket. Vir­gin Galac­tic plans to even­tu­ally pro­duce 24 rock­ets or more each year in its 150,000-square­foot fa­cil­ity, which borders the Long Beach Air­port and is near the for­mer Boe­ing C-17 plant, which closed in Novem­ber.

Vir­gin Galac­tic is look­ing to pro­duce rock­ets quickly and at low cost. On av­er­age, the com­pany said it will cost $10 mil­lion to launch a 440-pound satel­lite to a 500-kilo­me­ter sun-syn­chro­nous or­bit, the most com­monly re­quested or­bit. That com­pares with SpaceX’s start­ing price of $62 mil­lion for its Fal­con 9 rocket, or Rocket Lab’s $5 mil­lion charge for a 330-pound pay­load.

The com­pany has in­vested in ma­chines that speed the rocket pro­duc­tion line. One of them cre­ates new parts through 3-D print­ing, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously shav­ing off any ex­tra ma­te­rial that could make a part even a hair’s width too big.

Even the launch sys­tem was de­signed with costs in mind.

The 65-foot-long rocket will be se­cured un­der the left wing of a mod­i­fied commercial 747-400 jet­liner dubbed Cos­mic Girl. Af­ter the plane climbs to about 35,000 feet, it will re­lease LauncherOne to de­liver the pay­load into or­bit.

LauncherOne’s first test flight is sched­uled for next year. The plane will take off from Mo­jave and launch the rocket off the Cal­i­for­nia coast near Santa Bar­bara.

The com­pany has al­ready started to fill its launch man­i­fest. Its big­gest cus­tomer is OneWeb, which has pur­chased flights for 39 satel­lites. Last year, Vir­gin Galac­tic won a $4.7 mil­lion NASA con­tract to carry more than a dozen small satel­lites into or­bit. Fire­fly Space Sys­tems and Rocket Lab won sim­i­lar con­tracts.

Stra­to­launch Sys­tems, a project backed by Mi­crosoft co-founder Paul Allen and his com­pany Vul­can Aero­space, also hopes to launch satel­lites from midair. It is build­ing a rocket-car­ry­ing air­craft in Mo­jave that, when com­pleted, will have the largest wing­span of any plane ever built.

Cac­eres said he doesn’t ex­pect all of the start-up launch com­pa­nies to sur­vive. “Many of them will fold,” he said. “As long as you have some­one wealthy and you’re not re­ly­ing on at­tract­ing pri­vate in­vestors, you have a much bet­ter chance.”


A SET OF NanoRacks CubeSats is pho­tographed by an Ex­pe­di­tion 38 crew mem­ber af­ter the de­ploy­ment by the Small Satel­lite Or­bital De­ployer (SSOD). The CubeSats pro­gram con­tains a va­ri­ety of ex­per­i­ments such as Earth ob­ser­va­tions and ad­vanced elec­tron­ics...

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