Standing in the foyer of the Colorado state capitol earlier today, United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno introduced a new cubesat launch program aimed at promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education at the university level.
Beginning in 2017, ULA will mount a dedicated cubesat launcher on the Aft Bulkead Carrier of the Atlas rocket’s Centaur Upper Stage. Each carrier will be capable of dispensing up to 24 1U (10cm x 10cm x10cm) cubesats, with at least one cubesat opportunity being provided free of charge and awarded on a competitive basis. Only U.S. universities will allowed to compete for the slots, but according to the ULA website, entrants are encouraged to team up with K-12 institutions as well.
At least two such missions are planned for 2017, with the intention being that the carrier will ultimately accompany nearly every Atlas flight, and eventually that of the planned Vulcan booster as well.
Although not directly addressed during today’s announcement, the remaining slots, which could be a many as 23 on each flight, will presumably be offered on the commercial market, with the program’s web page noting “ULA’s initiative is the first major U.S. launch service provider to move forward with commercially manifesting and launching CubeSats directly onto ULA vehicles.”