STATE OF PLAY

Small Satellites Go Back to the Future

A renewed interest in launch rideshares for small satellites is enabling more frequent opportunities to reach orbit at a competitive price. We look at who’s involved and what’s next for the industry.

Image courtesy NASA/Ames Research Center

Dedicated Launch Providers

As small payloads have matured into operational commercial and government systems, the ability to launch into specific orbits on schedule has facilitated a more competitive launch market. Companies now offer destination flights for small payloads, and there is growing interest in privately owned launchpads, air-launched systems, and mobile and stationary launch platforms designed to support the custom small launch market. Small launch providers are now a a market segment. Fueled by dedicated launch demand and ready venture capital funding, there are currently over 148 different small dedicated launchers in development worldwide.

Launcher One. Photo courtesy Virgin Orbit.

Enter the Space Tugs

Space tug technology is gaining real-world credibility and could be a significant factor in reshaping the smallsat rideshare market. Space tugs provide last-mile “taxi” services — placing small cargos in preferred custom orbits. Depending on the mission, there can be a cost advantage for small cargos to ride on large launchers.

The SpaceX Transporter-2 mission launched two Spaceflight Sherpa tugs in June 2021. Photo courtesy SpaceX.

Back to the Future — Rideshare and Beyond

In 2017, India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) record-breaking launch of 104 smallsats may have helped reinvigorate rideshare, but three combined factors will enable the long-term market. These include the growing market for smallsat launch, increased launch frequency, and the tugs that can deliver the needed orbit accuracy.

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The Aerospace Corporation

We operate the only federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) committed exclusively to the space enterprise.