Smallsat Launch Industry Begins to Take Off

Is the Small Launch Industry Taking Off?Credit :  Generation Orbit

Is the Small Launch Industry Taking Off?
Credit : Generation Orbit

After riding on the coattails of larger satellite launches, the increasing demand for smaller satellites and cubesats are beginning to drive the introduction of a new generation of air launched commercial rockets.   Two new ventures, one in the U.S. and the other from Europe,  are planning to join Virgin Galactic and Stratolaunch in the rapidly expanding field of air launched rockets.

The first, based out of Atlanta is Generation Orbit Launch Services, which is planning both suborbital and orbital launches of a two stage  rocket carried under the belly of a small commercial business jet.   The company, which is led by Spaceworks Enterprises Inc. founder and CEO Dr. John R. Olds,  is working with Sunnyvale, California company Space Propulsion Group, Inc. on an innovative hybrid rocket motor which is powered by liquid oxygen and paraffin producing a startling 340 seconds specific impulse.   Plans call for an initial suborbital rocket,  GOLauncher1, which could boost 15 – 100kg  payloads, as a pathfinder vehicle, followed by a GOLauncher2,  which would be capable of placing up to 30 kg payloads into a 450 km circular orbit.

Much of the rationale behind the new effort lies in a recent SpaceWorks Nano/Micro market assessment  which finds that the number of new cubesat and small satellite efforts is on a steep upward trajectory, with the average number launched per year currently tripling every 5 years. Dedicated launches at lower cost, to specific orbits, and on greatly reduced timeframes could help accelerate that trend.

The second new venture,  reported on NewspaceWatch, is a little more mysterious, at least until for the moment. Swiss Space Systems  will officially unveil itself on March 13, at 1:13 PM local time in Payerne, Switzerland.  Although self described on Twitter as suborbital system,   the NSW story relays a report that the system will launch on an Airbus A300 and feature a reusable second stage with an expendable upper stage.  If that is in fact the case, the  S-3 (Swiss, Space, Systems) venture would be breaking new and very fertile ground in first stage recovery and reusability, possibly becoming the first company in the world to do so.  (excluding the carrier aircraft)

Regardless of who achieves this goal first, it is almost impossible to conceive of a truly expanding narrative in space commercialization and settlement until at least first stage reusability becomes an established practice. That is why SpaceX is pursuing the Grasshopper program as aggressively as it is, and why it is joined by Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems and others who begin with the presumption that fully expendable launch vehicles represent a historical dead end.

Given all the time and money spent over the years on large and very expensive space systems and their launch vehicles, it would turn out to be more than a little ironic if the path to reusable launch vehicles begins not with another top down technology development program, but instead  with the market demand for small, inexpensive satellites whose customer base includes companies,  universities, high schools and even individual hobbyists.

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