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Reusability, Mass Production Top the List for SmallSat Launch Priorities

By Caleb Henry | October 9, 2015
      HPSS Launch Panel

      The launch panel at the 2015 Hosted Payload and SmallSat Summit. Photo: Via Satellite.

      [Via Satellite 10-09-2015] Emerging small satellite launch providers are eager to speed up the production of rockets and introduce reusability in new launch systems. Speaking at the Hosted Payload and SmallSat Summit in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 8, executives from Virgin Galactic, Firefly Space Systems and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) all described rapid production and reusability as a must-haves to lower the cost of launch.

      “I think everyone can unanimously agree that costs are far too high in launch,” said P.J. King, co-founder of Firefly. “There are many reasons for that, but if you are going to approach the problem of reducing cost, you’ve effectively got two ways to do it: one is to mass produce and lower the unit costs on an expendable vehicle. The other way is to create a reusable vehicle. We have an eye on both.”

      The surge in small satellite activity has resulted in a concurrent rise of small satellite launch providers looking to meet growing demand. Both established players and more than a dozen of new entrants, are either designing and/or offering dedicated launch services for satellites ranging from CubeSats to satellites in the hundreds or low thousands of kilograms. Not all are pursuing reusability — Rocket Lab, for example, posits that expendable launchers are better for the pace of its business — but rapid manufacture is nearly unanimous, with modular systems dominating most approaches.

      King said mass production is the easier of the two, and constitutes Firefly’s primary focus for its early rocket development. Founded less than two years ago, the company recently test fired its first stage engine for Firefly Alpha, a dedicated SmallSat launch vehicle designed to deliver 400kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Firefly plans to build as many as 50 Alpha vehicles per year.

      “We are going to be doing three to four suborbital launches first — starting in 2017 to assure people — before we kick into orbital flights in the first quarter 2018,” said King.

      While reusability is part of the long-term plan for some, it is front and center for DARPA’s XS-1 spaceplane program. The agency has contracts with three teams —Boeing and Blue Origin; Northrop Grumman and Virgin Galactic; and Masten Space Systems and XCOR — to develop a spaceplane capable of delivering roughly 1,360kg (3,000lbs) to LEO for less than $5 million. Each is developing a two-part launch vehicle aimed at lowering launch costs and increasing cadence. Jess Sponable, XS-1 program manager at DARPA’s Tactical Office, said the agency wants to fly the reusable first stage without the expendable upper stage 10 times in 10 days.

      “We want to take off the table this perception that is out there among leadership and in the investment community that reusables are expensive. They don’t need to be any more expensive than a business jet or anything else that flies,” he said.

      Sponable said DARPA wants to perform a six- to nine-month flight test program by the end of 2019. The test flights will not start with the 1,360kg payload.

      “We have seven technology awards we issued initially plus another dozen or so that we recently issued, so we are halfway through phase one of the program. We just completed phase 1A and are moving into Phase 1B, and we will make a decision next spring as to whether or not to proceed with the program,” he said.

      Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne SmallSat vehicle employs a reusable carrier aircraft to lift the rocket above the densest part of Earth’s atmosphere prior to launch. The company recently upgraded the rocket to increase the amount of payload it can carry to 300 to 500kg for LEO missions. Richard DalBello, VP of business development and government relations at Virgin Galactic, said the revamped rocket is now much more aligned with the size of the small satellites the company sees in the market, but that the upgrade will require switching from WhiteknightTwo to a larger carrier aircraft.

      “We hope to be starting test launches in the latter part of 2017 with commercial operations in 2018. For a lot of the companies we are talking to, that’s a timeframe that works out well; that’s a planning cycle that works. If we can hit those marks, we think that there will be demand in that time period,” he said.

      Sponable said he expects the U.S. military would desire a rapid launch capability if available — a point echoed by DalBello — but cautioned that such a capability needs to exists before interest in fielding. Other defense-driven rapid response vehicles are in the works as well, such as the U.S. Air Force Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office’s Super Strypi rail-launched rocket, slated for its debut mission this month. DalBello said once Virgin Galactic has some launches under its belt, the company could drive the cycle time between launches down to weeks or less. John Paffett, CEO of Surrey Satellite Technology US, said the demand for faster launches in the commercial SmallSat sector is strong as well.

      “We have customers who are saying ‘can you build a spacecraft in six or seven months?’ The answer is yes, but you’re never going to launch it in six or seven months, so that very much is a choke point, and with the advent of new launchers that will help,” he said.

      Spaceflight Industries, which recently purchased a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX to dedicate entirely for rideshare missions, projects small satellites weighing from 180 to 300kg will experience the biggest surge in launch demand between now and 2017. Spaceflight provides rideshares from every country with active launch vehicles except for China. Melissa Wuerl, director of business development at Spaceflight, said the company has more SmallSats launching on an H2A rocket from Japan in early 2016, and 87 satellites on a SHERPA mission later in the year. Though not a producer of launch vehicles, Wuerl said the SmallSat market has a growing desire for dedicated launches. Spaceflight has also expressed interest in conducting missions with reusable launch systems.