PARIS — As many as 50 small satellites awaiting launch this year will remain grounded because of a lack of suitable launch-service options, and many that find a launch will end up in less-than-ideal operating orbits, according to Britain’s Satellite Applications Catapult Ltd.
But in what may be a confirmation of markets’ tendency to overreact, the Catapult’s survey found more than 50 rockets dedicated to small-satellite launches now under development.
For the many owners and operators of small satellites — here defined as weighing less than 500 kilograms at launch, and many less than 50 kilograms — a glut would be a nice change.
To date, most small satellite owners have had to adapt to whatever orbit is proposed to them because they are secondary passengers on a launch whose main payload has the priority.
‘Rideshare’ means secondary, which is orbital pot luck
This has been the case for launches from India’s PSLV rocket, which in February launched 103 small satellites as rideshare passengers on a launch primarily dedicated to placing India’s Cartosat-2 Earth observation satellite into orbit.
Cartosat-2 weighed 714 kilograms at launch and was intended for a 500-kilometer, sun-synchronous orbit inclined 97.46 degrees relative to the equator.
The 103 co-passengers had a combined launch mass of 664 kilograms.
Thanks to the PSLV mission, 2017 is shaping up to be a record year for small satellite missions. The Catapult estimates that 182 small spacecraft had been launched through June, already more than all of 2016, and that by the end of the year the total will be 250 satellites, a record year.
Another 50 satellites would like to be in that group but likely will need to wait until 2018 or later because of the lack of launch options.
50 small-satellite launchers being planned
When the drought of launch vehicles becomes a flood is unclear. The Catapult concedes that many of the 50 rockets in development are still “too immature to warrant mentioning.”
But while far fewer than 50, numerous vehicles have cleared the first credibility hurdles of funding, technical prowess and launch-site availability.
Among the more advanced projects include:
— Zero2infinity of Spain’s Bloostar balloon-assisted vehicle, which made its first test flight in March.
— The SS-520 public-private launcher from the Japanese space agency, JAXA, which failed in its first launch attempt in January.
— Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne, which has already secured commercial contracts.
— Rocket Lab of New Zealand’s Electron rocket, whose first test flight in May was not successful.
— Stratolaunch Systems Corp., whose enormous aircraft is expected to begin test flights this year.
— Vector Space Systems’ Vector-R rocket, scheduled to make a suborbital test flight from the U.S. state of Georgia this summer.
These and many other operators hope to find market traction in an industry sector that has not been kind to startups.
In addition to these new vehicles, established rockets including Europe’s Vega, Russia’s Soyuz and India’s PSLV are being adapted to capture a share of the commercial demand.
The Satellite Applications Catapult is a not-for-profit research organization created by the British government to stimulate the development of space technologies as a vector for the country’s economic growth.
Which city built the most smallsats in 2016?
Britain has become a hub of small-satellite activity, starting with pioneer Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. and now including Clyde Space of Scotland.
Craig Clark, Clyde Space’s CEO, said activity has reached a point to where more small satellites built in 2016 were manufactured in Glasgow — 60 — than in any other city.
San Francisco, home to Earth observation constellation operator Planet, which builds its on satellites, likely was not far behind. Planet has launched more than 200 satellites and had 88 aboard the February PSLV launch.
The Planet effect has made Earth observation the most common mission for the small satellites launched in 2017, accounting for 62% of the 182 satellites launched through June, according to Catapult figures. The remaining 38% were for technology or science missions.
Planet has also made regular use of NanoRacks LLC’s service of launching satellites from the International Space Station, carried to the facility aboard cargo vehicles and then transferred to Japan’s space station laboratory for ejection into orbit.
But the space station’s altitude, of around 400 kilometers, and its inclination — 51.6 degrees relative to the equator, a concession to the requirements of Russia’s Soyuz and Progress vehicles — is not optimal for many Earth observation missions.
Planet, for example, has said it was looking for an orbit better suited to imaging higher latitudes. It’s also true that a satellite launched to 500 kilometers likely will operate longer than one launched to 400 kilometers, all else being equal. But it will need a sharper camera to return the same ground sampling distance.
The dominance of Earth observation applications may be diluted in the coming years based on several commercial satellite telecommunications constellations scheduled for launch.
Sky and Space Global recently launched its first three Diamond satellites, which are the first commercial 3U-cubesats. The company plans to launch around 200 more starting in late 2018:
OneWeb LLC, which is registered in Britain and has recently received a license from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has scheduled the first of its 700-plus satellites — 150 kilograms each — for 2018. Groups of more than 30 OneWeb satellites then will launch from Russian Soyuz rockets starting in late 2018.