Category: Launch Segment

European trade union says threats to space sector are a jobs issue, defends geographic return

ArianeGroup has committed to reducing the cost of Ariane 6 by 40% compared to Ariane 5. That means fewer people, and more robots. Credit: ArianeGroup
PARIS — A European trade union urged European governments not to tamper with the geographic-return rules long in use at the 22-nation European Space Agency (ESA) and called for the creation of a space technology R&D program similar to the Clean Sky and SESAR efforts in aeronautics.
In a reflection of the growing belief in Europe that the space sector has become an engine for economic growth that now may be under threat, the IndustriAll European Trade Union’s space-policy document asks governments to limit the use of non-European technology in Europe unless the source nation’s market is equally open.
The position paper, “EU Space Strategy: Safeguard Competitiveness, Safeguard Jobs,” has proposals that will alternately upset the European Union’s executive commission, ESA, individual EU governments the managers of Europe’s space industry.
Geographical return, a perennial subject of debate in Europe, is a founding pillar of ESA and the glue that binds together nations whose wherewithal is as different as Germany’s is to Ireland’s.
It requires ESA to return to a national government more than 90% of the government’s investment in ESA in the form of contracts to national industry.
European industry officials have estimated that geographic return adds around 20% to the cost of a given ESA program, both in increased overhead costs and in propping up companies that would not otherwise survive.
The European Commission does not use geographical return.
For IndustriAll, the policy has demonstrated its value. the organization calls on EU policy makers “to consider the notion of geographical return as a factor of European cohesion, not as a restraint on profitability.”
European industry, and some European government officials, would argue that it’s both.
ArianeGroup, which is prime contractor for the heavy-lift Ariane 5 and future Ariane 6 rockets, comes in for special treatment by IndustriAl.
The company has announced that it must reduce its staff by around 2,300 equivalent-full-time positions by 2023-2024, when Ariane 5 is retired and the less-costly Ariane 6 takes over.
IndustriAll calls for “a commitment from employers that the consolidation of projects will not lead to job losses. This includes ending the current restructuring within the ArianeGroup and the potential 2,300 job losses — a quarter of its European work force — which is the greatest urgency to the European space sector.”
ArianeGroup has said it expects the vast majority of the work force reduction to occur by the retirement of Ariane 5-dedicated employees and the transfer of others to ArianeGroup’s strategic-missile and other military work.
The ArianeGroup restructuring will affect 5% of Europe’s total direct space sector employment of 45,000 jobs. IndustriAll wants individual employees to respect European labor regulations in their individual nations, and notes that ArianeGroup, a mainly Franco-German company, has not yet created a European Works Council.
ArianeGroup, in response to the IndustriAll paper, said the works council is being formed and that its creation had to await the nomination by French and German labor unions of candidates for the new organization.
The European Union is debating a proposed budget of 16 billion euros ($18 billion) to be spent between 2021 and 2027 on specific space programs, mainly the Galileo positioning, navigation and timing network, and the Copernicus environment-monitoring program.
There are separate budgets, including a European Defence Fund, and an R&D program called Horizon Europe, that are seen as possible sources of space technology funding even if they have no dedicated budget lines.
Europe’s space industry association, ASD Eurospace, has pushed for a dedicated program, but without success:
IndustriAll now returns to the subject, calling for “a joint technology initiative (JTI) and effective working structures, similar to Clean Sky or SESAR [Single European Sky ATM Research] in aeronautics, to be created for the space sector, to boost innovation by allowing industry to take more risks in R&D.”
The position paper does not directly address the continued friction between ESA and the European Commission over who will have what power over Europe’s space policy. Nor does it refer to the synergies that would result from consolidating many individual European government space agencies into ESA or  and EU format.
But it does call for “EU policy makers to have the right to scrutinize the industrial strategy for the sector, which is strategic for Europe,” which sounds like a call for more EU oversight of ESA and individual national space agencies.

U.S. DARPA says Blackjack LEO constellation demonstrator on track with Airbus, Telesat, Blue Canyon; selection of winner in 2020

Credit: DARPA
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department’s Blackjack program to launch a fleet of small, commercially built low-orbiting satellites to test various military sensors is on track to complete its preliminary design review by year’s end before moving to satellite construction.
“I couldn’t be happier with the progress,” said Paul Thomas, Blackjack program manager at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). “I have more payloads and buses than I expected. It’s going to be hard, going into Phase 2 and Phase 3, to start thinking about how we’re going to do the down-selects, to narrow down to what is actually going to fly.”
DARPA in late 2018 signed one-year study contracts with two contractors building separate mega-constellations of broadband satellites: Airbus Defence and Space, for the OneWeb constellation’s satellite bus; and Telesat of Canada, which is designing its LEO constellation.
Blue Canyon Technologies, which builds small satellite platforms, is the third Blackjack partner. All three companies were awarded contracts valued at between $1.5 million and $3 million each in late 2018.
How Blackjack ultimately will fare in a tug of war between the U.S. Air Force and the Pentagon’s new Space Development Agency (SDA) is anyone’s guess. The Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center is already a Blackjack partner, and Thomas said SDA appears to share the program’s goals.
Paul “Rusty” Thomas. Credit: U.S. Air Force
“I wouldn’t want to speak for exactly where SDA is going, but I do believe some of the elements coming out of Blackjack will be foundational for what SDA wants to do,” Thomas said here May 8 during the Satellite 2019 conference.
Blackjack is not a hosted-payload program. Rather, DARPA would purchase satellites coming off the OneWeb or Telesat LEO or Blue Canyon production lines, strip out payload of no interest to Blackjack, insert DARPA sensors and then launch them separately.
The goal is to spend no more than $6 million per satellite including its launch.
Blackjack is a manifestation of an increasingly common view among U.S. military space officials that a network of small satellites can perform many of the duties now given to larger satellites, while reducing the risk of having large, identifiable targets in space.
“A lot of different missions — IR sensors, EO IR, PNT [positioning, navigation and timing, such as GPS], RF systems — all benefit form the LEO proliferated approach,” Thomas said. “A 1-meter sensor in GEO [orbit] can be reduced to a 3-centimeter aperture at 1,000 kilometers,” the presumed orbit for the initial Blackjack satellites.
The current schedule is to complete the Phase 1 preliminary design reviews this year, move to critical design review in 2020 and then launch in 2021 and 2022.
This diagram shows one way the DARPA Blackjack satellites would integrate with a commercial LEO broadband constellation, communicating with teh commercial satellites but operating military payloads in potentially different orbits. Credit: DARPA
Blackjack envisions ordering two satellites first before contracting for 18 more for a 20-satellite initial constellation.
The savings would come from letting the industrial contractors absorb the nonrecurring engineering charges for the platforms’ development, with DARPA coming in the the middle of these companies’ production runs with a 20-satellite order.
Even so, the current Phase 1 of Blackjack includes multiple design reviews of the satellite buses as well as potential DARPA-selected payloads. For example, Blackjack wants its satellites to communicate with each other in space, whereas OneWeb’s first generation does not include inter-satellite links.
“Their bus does a wonderful job of talking to Ku- and Ka-band, but it doesn’t have 30, 40 or 50 kilograms of extra space,” Thomas said, referring to OneWeb. They have a wonderful application for hosted payloads. But Blackjack is not a hosted payload. We want to put payload combinations at different altitudes, in different orbits, and not just be exactly where the commercial folks are.”
The Blackjack satellites would not operate the commercial service planned by the commercial constellation operator, but they will have enough payload commonality to be able to communicate through the commercial network, once having added military encryption.
Thomas’s background is worth noting: He was director for SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, a director of technical operations at the former Orbital Sciences, now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, and manager of launch systems at Teledesic, a late-1990s attempt to do what OneWeb, Telesat LEO — and SpaceX, with its Starlink constellation — propose to do now.

Avio reports 10%-plus increase in revenue, EBITDA for Q1 2019; expects Ariane 6 contract soon

Credit: Avio/Arianespace
PARIS — Rocket hardware builder Avio S.p.A. reported double-digit increases in Q1 revenue and adjusted EBITDA compared to last year and said it expected to sign contracts for its work on 14 Ariane 6 rockets in the coming months.
Avio is prime contractor for Europe’s Vega light-lift vehicle, which has been successful in its first 14 flights, the latest being in March. An upgraded Vega, called Vega-C, is scheduled to make its inaugural flight in early 2020.
Avio’s Vega first stage also serves as the strap-on booster for the heavy-lift Ariane 6 rocket, which comes with two-booster and four-booster versions.
Ariane 6 is scheduled to make its first flight in mid-2020. A contract for the first 14 rockets after that inaugural launch had been held up for months as the Ariane 6 contracting team, led by ArianeGroup, pressed European governments for concrete guarantees on Ariane 6 missions between 2021 and 2023.
A recent agreement by European Space Agency (ESA) governments permitted ArianeGroup and Arianespace to sign a 14-rocket production contract on May 6.
Avio said it will in turn sign contracts for its work on the 14 rockets with ArianeGroup in the coming months.
The question for Avio is whether the Vega rocket will be able to capture the currently booming small-satellite launch market by keeping its prices competitive and its Vega launch rate high enough.
The vehicle is expected to launch four times in 2019, including two launches of the United Arab Emirates FalconEye optical reconnaissance satellites.
Vega’s Small Satellite Mission Service (SSMS) is designed to provide relatively low-cost launch to low Earth orbit for cubesats stacked onto a dispenser and then released one by one.
The first SSMS mission is now sold out and is scheduled to carry more than 40 satellites for its first launch in September.
The ESA agreement that cleared the way for the 14-rocket Ariane 6 order included a clear demarcation between payloads to launch on Vega-C, and those to launch on the Ariane 62 rocket, which is fitted with two strap-on boosters.
Payloads weighing 200-2,350 kilograms — the Vega-C limit — will be assigned to Vega-C by Arianespace. Satellites weighing more than that will be assigned to Ariane 62. Payloads weighing less than 200 kilograms will be assigned to whichever vehicle has the earlier launch availability.
For the three months ending March 31, Avio reported revenue of 82.6 million euros ($73.6 million), up 10% from the same period a year ago. Adjusted EBITDA was 7.1 million euros, up 13% from a year earlier and equivalent to 8.6% of revenue, compared to 8.3% a year ago.
Avio said that as of March 31 it had cash and equivalents totaling 48.7 million euros, unchanged from Dec. 31.
Avio Chief Executive Giulio Ranzo said 2019 is a crucial year for the company as it conducts a planned total of four Vega and five Ariane 6 missions.

For its Starlink satellite constellation, still a mystery, SpaceX to launch “dozens” of test satellites on May 15

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. Credit: Euroconsult
WASHINGTON — The mystery that is SpaceX’s Starlink mega-constellation of broadband satellites deepened on May 7 when SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the company would launch “dozens” of Starlink spacecraft on May 15 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, but that the satellites would not be fully operational.
Assuming the launch and the satellites’ early operations go smoothly, she said at least two launches of fully operational Starlink satellites would occur later this year, and perhaps as many as six.
SpaceX has said previously that the upcoming launch would be to 550 kilometers, would have stripped-down features compared to the operational constellation.
“I don’t know if we’ve every released it publicly, but let’s call it dozens, dozens of satellites on that launch,” Shotwell said here May 7 at the Satellite 2019 conference. “This next batch of satellites will really be a demonstration for us to see, and start putting our network together. We start launching the satellites for actual service later this year.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we had two to six launches at the end of the year of Starlink… in addition to this one. It depends on how we do with this first batch. think we’ll get at least two more.
Of the satellites themselves, Shotwell said: “They’re capable but there’s no intersatellite links on it. I call them test class satellites. The antennas are pretty hot on these things, they are very capable systems.”
Shotwell did not explain why so many demonstration satellites needed to be launched.
SpaceX’s initial constellation of more than 4,000 satellites was intended to operate from 1,100 to 1,300 kilometers. Those plans had been criticized by startup satellite-broadband constellation operator OneWeb, which complained to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission that the OneWeb and SpaceX satellites would be too close together in orbit, risking collisions.
OneWeb Chief Financial Officer Tom Whayne said here May 6 that SpaceX’s decision to apply for a license in a lower orbit could be seen as a response to OneWeb’s concerns.
Other industry officials had different explanations for SpaceX’s change of plans.
Viasat Chief Executive Mark Dankberg, which operates broadband satellites in geostationary orbit, said the latest Starlink design appears much less capable than its predecessor in terms of capacity, but also is one that can be built and launched more quickly.
“If you look at the [regulatory] filings there are quite a few changes that will substantially reduce the capability of the first generation,” Dankberg said of Starlink’s new design. “So they have greatly relaxed that to meet that schedule. The altitude is lower, I think the EIRP is lower, and in order to get the geographic coverage they have increased the look angles they are going to support. It’s not clear they are going to have cross-links.”
SpaceX told the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on April 17 that it had raised just $44 million of a planned $400 million, a financing round that industry officials said was devoted to Starlink and its revenue potential.
No one from the Starlink program makes public statements about the constellation, leaving industry observers to read employment notices and regulatory filing to glean what they can about the system’s capacity and its owners’ intentions and financial resources.
Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel, appearing on the the same launch-service panel with Shotwell, tried to spark concern in the industry about the fact that SpaceX, a launch-service company, will be the owner of a large constellation of satellites that will compete with the systems operated by SpaceX launch customers.
It’s an issue he has raised before in an attempt to cause customer disengagement from SpaceX as a launch service. Israel conceded after the session that his effort fell flat.
Aware of what Israel was driving at, Shotwell said: “With Boeing and Lockheed it’s been that way for decades. They build satellites, they launch satellites and operate satellites — some commercial and some, probably mostly, for the Department of Defense.”
With the commercial launch market in a prolonged slump, SpaceX’s having an in-house demand for dozens of launchers of Starlink satellites is seen as a real advantage. But Shotwell said the company is not yet suffering as much as would be expected given the lack of commercial satellite orders industry-wide.
“In 2017 we launched 18 times, in 2018 we launched 21 times,” Shotwell said. “This year, depending on customer readiness, we could launch between 18 and 21 times. Next year, 16-20 launches in the manifest. We’ve signed 22 deals since this show last year. So we’re still still seeing pretty strong uptake of our services and then Starlink would be on top of that.”

OneWeb targets aero, maritime markets first; government a new focus; Florida satellite plant opens this month

OneWeb Chief Executive Adrian Steckel. Credit: CNBC
WASHINGTON — Startup broadband satellite constellation operator OneWeb said maritime and aeronautical applications will be its biggest moneymakers early on, followed by government applications as the company focuses on vertical markets before turning to its headline mission of connecting the world’s poor.
In a recurring theme at OneWeb, Chief Executive Adrian Steckel the company has to assure profitability before taking on the more-noble task of fitting rural schools with broadband access.
“Most of the people [at OneWeb] are here to fulfill that mission of [founder] Greg Wyler, but the argument I have with him and others is that: Yes we will do that but we have to have a business that allows us to expand.
“We’re focused on a diversified set of revenues,” Steckel said May 6 here at the Satellite 2019 conference. “Consumer broadband certainly will play a role in our mission, but we have to dial that back to make sure we can do it.”
OneWeb recently hired Dylan Browne, formerly of Comsat and Airbus Defence and Space, to head its government business unit.
OneWeb has been meeting with U.S. Defense Department officials to try to shift their attention on what a competitor like SpaceX with its Starlink broadband satellite constellation might one day do, to what OneWeb will be able to do in 2021.
OneWeb has raised a total of $3.4 billion including its most recent funding round of $1.25 billion.
An industry official said the latest round, much of it not in cash, includes:
— $505 million from lead investor Softbank.
— $300 million from Grupo Salinas of Mexico.
— $200 million from Airbus, co-prime contractor of the OneWeb satellites.
— $98 million from Qualcomm, providing the wireless air interface and modem.
— $27 million from the government of Rwanda, an early, if anomalous, OneWeb backer.
Steckel declined to say what the latest capex estimate is for the OneWeb system since it reduced its first-generation architecture to 650 satellites. He also did not address debt financing. OneWeb has been seeking export-credit financing from France’s Bpifrance, and industry officials have been saying for months that it’s imminent. But it hasn’t yet been secured.
He reiterated that the latest funding gives the company enough to switch on its Florida production plant at the end of this month, and to be launching satellites on Russian Soyuz rockets on a monthly basis, with each rocket carrying 35 OneWeb satellites, by the end of this year.
“In the overall constellation cost, the launch is costing us a bit more than our satellites,” Steckel said of the 1-billion-euro ($1.12-billion), 21-launch contract with Europe’s Arianespace, which is managing the launches on the Russian rockets, mainly occurring from Russian spaceports. “That cost will come down” with teh general trend toward lower launch costs.
OneWeb will be entering the aeronautical and maritime markets at a time of increasing competition among established satellite operators for these customers. The aeronautical market is highly regulated and commercial airlines are loathe to change technology hardware once they have outfitted their planes.
It is also unclear how OneWeb, whose first generation does not have inter satellite links, will operate over the Pacific Ocean air routes to carry data to and from aircraft.
Steckel said one goal of the second-generation constellation, already in design, is to permit the satellites to communicate with each other to speed the delivery of data to and from Earth stations, and to add steerable beams. OneWeb’s first satellites weigh 150 kilograms each.
He said that once the company completes the goal of having to raise “this crazy mount of money — once you are over that tipping point,  you can deploy capital in a very efficient way that’s less expensive, you’ve got all the distribution channels. Our goal for the next 10 years is we think that we will be worth 10s of billions of dollars.”

10 years and counting: Northrop partnership with Ukraine traverses Russian, ITAR, U.S. content issues

A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket lifts off April 17, 2019, with its Cygnus spacecraft carrying 3,450 kilograms of payload to the International Space Station. The company has a contract with NASA to launch at least six Antares/Cygnus missions starting late this year, with an average of two per year. Credit: Northrop Grumman
DNIPRO, Ukraine — Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems has been working with Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye/Yuzhmash rocket manufacturer for over a decade on Northrop’s Taurus/Antares rockets and has traversed ITAR technology-transfer restrictions, Russia’s incursion into eastern Ukraine and the usual issues of working across different cultures.
The partnership, in which Yuzhnoye/Yuzhmash builds the Antares rocket’s first stage core, shows no sign of ending so long as Northrop can maintain its International Space Station (ISSU resupply business with NASA.
ISS’s retirement date is still in flux. It may stretch to 2028, depending on the ISS partners’ decisions. The latest Antares launch occurred on April 17, delivering 3,450 kilograms of supplies to the ISS.
Under NASA’s Commercial Resupply-2 contract, Northrop has at least six missions, enough to assure minimal throughput for the Yuzhnoye/Yuzhmash production line here to 2021.
The prospects for the ISS work, and for the continuation of work with Italy’s Avio on Europe’s Vega rocket, is a subject of concern for Yuzhnoye/Yuzhmash managers:
Jeff Campbell, director, contracts, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems Inc., gave a frank assessment of the partnership April 18 during the Noosphere Space Summit in Kiev and during a visit to the Yuzhnoye/Yuzhmash plant April 19.
Campbell noted the fact that the production facility here was operating far below capacity.
“We’re concerned,” Campbell said when asked about the Ukrainian space sector. “Changes to legislation would be instrumental in getting new business here, and [exporting] premium products. It has to be done. It used to be you would see nine or 10 rockets being built at a time..
“The potential is huge,” Campbell said of Ukraine’s heritage and current work force. “There are a tone of young engineers working for Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash. They are good workers. They know what they’re doing. But they’re going to need something to work on.”
Operating as Orbital Sciences and then Orbital ATK before Northrop’s purchase of Orbital, Northrop reasons for coming to Ukraine were straightforward: liquid propulsion and price.
“At the time, we had no experience with liquid-fueled vehicles,” Campbell said. “Everything Orbital did at the time was solid rocket. There was also aluminum taking welding that Yuzhmash had, and still has. It was very beneficial. Also, they had substantial manufacturing and test facilities.”
Being creative with the U.S. content regulations
Using Russian engines and a Ukrainian first stage might have been a hard sell to the U.S. government, which requires that rockets used for U.S. government missions be at least 51% U.S.-built.
Northrop demonstrated to U.S. authorities that the Taurus rocket, renamed Antares in 2011, met that standards if cost was the metric.
“Cost was a very significant factor for us,” Campbell said. “We knew that our second stage at the time was going to be a solid-rocket motor from ATK. But to get a competitive launch vehicle, we needed Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash expertise.
“We were able to persuade the U.S. government that you can’t just look at the rocket to see if it’s 51%. You’ve got to go into cost and into the labor associated with building the rocket. We were able to convince them that even with the Ukrainian fuel tanks and the Russian engines, we met the criteria.”
ITAR then and now
Next up was the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regime (ITAR), which in recent years has been softened for satellite technology transfer but not for rocket technology.
For Northrop, ITAR meant traveling to Ukraine with Defense Technology Security Administration (DTSA) minders who assured that no U.S. rocket technology was inadvertently passed to Ukraine. The fact that Northrop was there principally to purchase and export Ukrainian technology did not change this.
And the DTSA people’s travel expenses were paid by Northrop.
After several years — the first Northrop-Yuzhnoye/Yuzhmash contracts were in 2008 — DTSA agreed to let up, if only a bit.
“It ensures we don’t talk about what we’re not allowed to talk about,” Campbell said of the DTSA oversight. “But because we had a good compliance program — because we trained our people on this compliance program — DTSA decided they didn’t need to come to every meeting.”
Campbell said Northrop, while still Orbital, had contemplated ending the partnership some years ago when Ukraine’s political situation became difficult.
But it soon became clear that the risk of exporting hardware was diminishing, and the partnership was maintained.

Failure rate of cubesats depends on who’s building them; operator secrecy complicates datasets

The asterisk here means: The data is only as accurate as what cubesat owners are willing to disclose. Credit: Michael Swartwout, Saint Louis University
PARIS — Cubesat operators usually don’t wear ties, but when it comes to disclosing mission-status data they are at least as buttoned-up as any large aerospace company, according to a survey tracking 18 years of cubesat history.
The aggregate number of cubesats launched since 2000 surpassed 1,000 in December 2018, growing from a market nice to a market phenomenon that has caught the attention of regulators and both government and commercial users, said Michael Swartwout of Saint Louis University.
“One thousand satellites is too many to ignore and we’re getting attention that perhaps we didn’t want to have and that is potentially going to have implications downstream,” Swartwout said.
Swartwout and Saint Louis University maintain a data base that tracks cubesat in-orbit performance: He acknowledges that satellite owners are not always forthcoming with data.
“What parts are failing? I don’t have that data,” Swartwout said. “No one else does, either. Are we getting better? I think we are, but there’s not a lot of information about what’s working and what’s not working.”
Ninety-six of the 1,011 cubesats launched between 2000 and the end of 2018 were destroyed in launch failures. Another 11% were never heard from after being released from their rockets and are presumed failures. A further 6.2% failed after a few days and never entered full operations.
Addressing the Cubesat Developers Workshop April 23 organized by Cal Poly, Swartwout said some satellites presumed dead in orbit have been revived by their owners after computer resets.
Failure rates differ among different owner types, with Hobbyists, most on their first satellite, showing the highest levels of satellites that were separated from their rockets but did not function (DOA) and those that failed early afterward. Also of note is the difficulty in getting clear mission-status data from the Crafters and Industrialists. Credit: Michael Swartwout, Saint Louis University
Nearly 40% of the 1,011 cubesats launched since 2000 were for commercial Earth imaging constellations for Planet and Spire Global. Because of these two companies’ weight in the total count, Swartwout removed them from the some of his datasets to focus on three owner classes: Hobbyists, Crafters and Industrialists.
The Hobbyists usually build no more than a couple of satellites, for example at a university program, before calling it quits. Predictably, their failure rates are the highest — 43% of them have failed either immediately after separation or within a few days.
“Hobbyists cross their fingers and hope for the best,” Swartwout said. He conceded that many of these satellites’ status is not clear, but: “They Hobbyists are not getting better. They don’t know what they’re doing and it shows, with ad hoc procedures and a lack of integration and testing. They don’t stick around and so there is no chance for a learning curve.”
Swartwout counted more than 250 organizations that have flown cubesats since 2000. More than half of them are in the Hobbyist category, having flown only one satellite. A large portion of the rest have flown only two.
The Crafters include smallsat builders who have produced several satellites and profited from their earlier mistakes. They have a higher risk tolerance than traditional satellite builders, which can lead to failures, but they learn the hard lessons.
The number of cubesats launched since 2000 surpassed the 1,000-satellite level in late 2018, including more than 400 from Planet and Spire. Credit: Michael Swartwout, Saint Louis University
“The Crafters are definitely getting better,” Swartwout said, point into a significant reduction in the failure rate. For these operators, who count for 235 satellites, the failure rate is 17%, including those that never functioned and those that stopped functioning after a few days.
The Industrialist category includes larger, established satellite companies that have applied to their cubesats many of the procedures they have honed over the years for larger spacecraft.
“They do all the mission assurance you would do for a larger mission, and they have a better success rate than the others,” Swartwout said. “That’s probably a good thing: You get what you pay for.”
Industrialists accounted for only 65 cubesats in 2000-2018 period. Only four of them failed. But this category also shows the highest percentage of satellites in “unknown” status. 
Swartwout said there appears to be no common component defect in the failure rates, but rather the inability of some cubesat builders to match their missions’ scope with the mission’s schedule and cost.
“When they are unable to trade scope to the fixed cost and schedule, that leads to a lot of the problems we’re seeing on orbit,” he said. “Instead of doing functional testing on the ground, we’re doing that on orbit.”

Raytheon rides the smallsat wave, at least when military customers are in view

Wallis Laughrey, vice president, Raytheon Space Systems. Credit: Cal Poly
PARIS — Raytheon has converted a portion of its missile-systems facility into a small-satellite production site and appears sold on the growth potential for quick-production spacecraft that allow the company to validate technologies that would be too risky to launch otherwise.
Smallsats are also a hiring advantage.
“With programs like IRIS-X, a recent college grade can step into a program, help with the design, touch the hardware and launch — all within two or three years,” said Wallis Laughrey, vice president of Raytheon Space Systems.
Most large U.S. space-technology prime contractors have a hand in the smallsat sector, whether under contract for U.S. Air Force, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) or others, or through venture funds.
In addition to its own contracts on U.S. Defense Department programs, Raytheon has become a large equity owner of Hawkeye 360, an Allied Minds-created startup that is building a constellation of satellites for radio-frequency detection. The investment means Raytheon has to be considered as a likely future owner of Hawkeye 360.
The same is true for Raytheon, which explains the company’s presence at the Cubesat Developers Workshop organized by Cal Poly April 23-25.
Laughrey’s IRIS-X reference was to the Infrared Imaging Space Experiment satellite. It is not a cubesat but was built for $30 million in 29 months from design to build. It was launched into geostationary orbit in April 2018 as a secondary payload aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.
With a new design of focal plane array and large-diameter primary mirror, IRIS-X “is the largest optic every flown at GEO” orbit, Laughrey said. Its mission for the U.S. Air Force is to use demonstrate that “persistent” imaging of a given geography can yield operationally interesting data even at a much lower ground sampling distance than lower-orbit optical reconnaissance spacecraft.
Raytheon’s Tucson, Arizona, missile systems facility also includes a small-satellite production capability. Credit: Raytheon
Mor recently, Raytheon assembled the two-satellite ORS-7 Polar Scout satellites to be used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to assist emergency-rescue crews in locating the source of beacons in remote areas including the Arctic. The U.S. Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space office was the contracting agency.
Millenium Engineering and Integration, Rincon Research Corp. and Space Dynamics Laboratory worked with Raython assembled at the Raytheon Tucson, Arizona, facility.
Raytheon is one of several companies under design contract for DARPA’s Blackjack program to look at future low-orbit constellations that could augment or even replace much larger military telecommunications satellites.
DARPA is looking for a low-orbit constellation design that would be able to design, build and launch satellites for a total cost of less than $6 million. Credit: DARPA
Airbus Defence and Space, Trident Systems, Blue Canyon, Telesat and others are also working on Blackjack payload designs.
“Under Blackjack, Raytheon is developing a payload that aims to demonstrate the critical elements for a global high-speed network in low Earth orbit,” Laughrey said. “The Blackjack constellation emphasizes low-cost payloads with short design cycles and frequent technologies upgrades.”
DARPA has said its goal is less than $6 million per satellite including its design, manufacture and launch.
“With cubesats, smallsats and at the like, we are launching things to prove out the TRL [Technology Readiness Level] and demonstrate that they can survive in space — electronic components, large-format focal planes and other subsystems,” Laughrey said. “These programs would never have been contemplated 10 years ago — too much risk and too difficult to launch.”

Spaceflight says all but 4 of 64 satellites from December launch on SpaceX have been accounted for

The December launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying 64 satellites has stirred debate over volume discounts offered by large rockets vs more-expensive, tailored launches of fewer satellites. Credit: Spaceflight Industries
PARIS — Spaceflight Industries said four of the 64 satellites it launched in December on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as part of Spaceflight’s SSO-A mission remain unaccounted for and that 19 of the 64 remain to be identified.
The December launch was hailed as a technical feat by the industry but drew criticism from satellite tracking experts because of the difficulty of identifying so many small satellites released in such a short period of time.
Seattle-based Spaceflight sought to nuance the situation on April 23 at the Cubesat Developers Workshop, held at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
“Within 24 hours, 87% of the spacecraft had made contact” with their ground stations, said Scott Schoneman, chief mission development engineer at Spaceflight Launch Services. “That’s 56 out of 64.”
The satellites — 46 cubesats and 15 microsats — were all successfully deployed from the Spaceflight carriers. But four of them remain unaccounted for over four months after the event.
Schoneman said that by “unaccounted for” he meant they had not been positively identified by the U.S. Air Force Combined Space Operations Center, CSpOC, which in the absence of another international body acts as the de facto global space traffic management agency.
These four satellites, including startup commercial satellite relay provider Audacy, may have failed soon after deployment:
Another 15 satellites are being tracked by CSpOC but have not been identified.
“CSpOC is tracking all the objects, but they have not been correlated with customers,” Schoneman said. “We gave all the information we could but cannot hold their feet to the fire to call CSpOC.”
Of the 19 satellites that CSpOC has not identified, 12 are for non-U.S. owners. Non-U.S. operators may have less incentive to proactively call a U.S. Air Force agency, which is one of the arguments made to move CSpOC away from its current role, and to give the job to a civil agency or the private sector, or a combination of the two.
The long delay in the launch made the SSO-A mission a nightmare for many of its satellite owners, especially those debuting a business with the launch. It was no less a problem for Spaceflight, as corralling multiple startups so that all are ready for an ever-shifting launch date was no easy task.
“All in all, things were found and identified and by and large were all working,” Schoneman said. “So a fairly good success rate, especially in the context of historical cubesat performance.”
Credit: Spaceflight Industries
Spaceflight conducted four missions in 2018, launching a total of 95 satellites.
This year, the company plans 17 launches, two of which have already occurred — the first an unusual geostationary-orbit rideshare mission. The SpaceX Falcon 9 carried the main payload, an SSL-built telecommunications satellite for Indonesia, into geostationary-transfer orbit dropped off an Israeli lunar lander and an Air Force Research Lab demonstration satellite into GTO as well.
The two ride-share passengers were attached to the main satellite payload on the way to GTO. A protective cone covering the two payloads was jettisoned in a graveyard orbit 300 kilometers above the geostationary belt 36,000 kilometers over the equator. The rocket’s upper stage then carried the payloads into a lower orbit where the the two ride-shares were separated.
Spaceflight purchased the ride-share contract from SSL.
Spaceflight also had customers on the Indian PSLV rocket’s launch on April 1.
Credit: Spaceflight Industries
The 15 missions still to come in 2019 include a planned five aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle, a launch aboard Europe’s Vega small-satellite launcher and several more PSLVs from India.
Spaceflight has agreements with startup launch-service providers Vector and Virgin Orbit, “but we’re talking with everybody,” Schoneman said.
Larger rockets carrying more satellites are generally less expensive per kilogram to launch, but Spaceflight has said it has no appetite for repeating the SSO-A experience. Instead, it is looking for a middle ground where prices are kept relatively low by virtue of a rocket’s carrying multiple satellites, but the satellite number is not large enough to cause organizational headaches.
Schoneman said that the PSLV and the SpaceX Falcon 9 are comparably priced. Other satellite operators have said that the net PSLV price — including shipping and regulatory approvals — make it higher than SpaceX.
Schoneman said India’s planned SSLV rocket, if brought into service as planned, “is going to be a really nice size for ride share, with good prices.”

ESA commits to 7 Ariane 6 missions for 2021-2023, clearing way for ArianeGroup batch order of 14 rockets

The OneWeb satellite-broadband company contracted to launch 30 satellites on the inaugural Ariane 6 flight in mid-2020, with two options included in the contract. Credit: ArianeGroup
KIEV, Ukraine — The European Space Agency (ESA) appears to have broken a deadlock with Europe’s launch industry by agreeing to guarantee that its governments will order seven missions to launch between 2021 and 2023 on the new Ariane 6 rocket.
Not all these missions have been identified yet, which is why ESA had hesitated in making the commitment. But faced with the equivalent of a work stoppage by Ariane 6’s industrial contractors, the agency’s ruling council on April 17 unanimously agreed to make the commitment nonetheless.
ESA Director of Launchers Daniel Neuenschwander said the agency has committed to finding the seven missions — several have already been allocated — by the time of ESA’s ministerial conference, called Space 19+, scheduled for Nov. 28-29 in Seville, Spain.
Ariane 6 prime contractor ArianeGroup said the agreement, reached with unanimous support of ESA governments, appears to be enough to start production of the 14 Ariane 6 vehicles to be launched during that period.
“This is very good news,” said Andre-Hubert Roussel, chief executive of ArianeGroup. Roussel said that once he receives formal written confirmation of the agreement, he will issue ATPs — authorizations to proceed — to the Ariane 6 supply chain to begin work.
Several weeks later, contracts will be signed for 14 Ariane 6 rockets to be built during what ESA has designated as the Ariane 6 transition phase, 2021-2023, when the current Ariane 5 heavy-lift vehicle will be phased out and production of the Ariane 6 will ramp.
ESA and the Ariane 6 contractors agreed that there was an urgency to resolving the outstanding issues given that it will take about two years to produce the first of these 14 rockets.
ESA and the Ariane 6 industrial team had already agreed to the production of a single Ariane 6 rocket, a demonstration flight in mid-2020. None of the other vehicles have been ordered pending an ESA commitment that Ariane 6 industrial suppliers said was indispensable to their making a firm first-batch order of 14 rockets.
Under this schedule, Roussel said, the first of the 14 rockets will be ready for launch in the first half of 2021.
The European Commission and potentially other customers have signaled a need for Ariane 6 in mid-2021, a date that would have been difficult to meet if ESA had put off the seven-launch commitment until the November ministerial.
Neuenschwander said numerous other decisions on Ariane 6 and its future evolution — to reduce its production cost, consider a reusable first stage and a lighter upper stage — will await decisions at the Seville ministerial council.
The inaugural Ariane 6 to fly in mid-2020 will use the rocket’s lighter variant, the Ariane 62 with two strap-on boosters. That mission already has a commercial customer, the startup OneWeb, which is launching a constellation of more than 600 satellites. The heavier Ariane 64, with four boosters, will not fly until 2021.
ArianeGroup has said that the 64 version’s first launch may need to be priced at a discount and that ESA — which needs the 64 version for several of the agency’s missions — may have to provide financial support to the first mission to cover the difference between what the inaugural customer is willing to pay and what ArianeGroup and its Arianespace marketing arm would normally charge for Ariane 64.
Neuenschwander said ESA’s April 17 decision includes an agreement to consider a financial contribution to the Ariane 64’s inaugural flight in 2021 if the agency is unable to come up with the seven agreed-to Ariane 6 missions by the time of the November council.
“To be clear: We’ll consider this only if the seven launch contracts are not signed by the ministerial,” Neuenschwander said. But he said the Ariane 6 launch cadence and the “learning curve” effects are topics that will be addressed at the November conference.
Europe’s Vega small-satellite launcher is now 14 successes in 14 attempts. The upgraded Vega-C is scheduled to fly in the first half of 2020. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace
ESA’s April 17 council also agreed to a formula for distributing launches between  the Ariane 62 and the Vega-C, an upgraded version of the light-lift Vega rocket that has conducted 14 launches, all successful. Vega-C’s prime contractor is Avio SpA of Italy.
With the smallsat market emerging as the most dynamic segment of the satellite business, the capacity overlap between Vega-C and Ariane 62 has become a possible point of contention between the two rockets.
Neuenschwander said ESA payloads below 200 kilograms in launch mass would be assigned to whichever of the two rockets has the first launch availability. Payloads between 200 and 2,350 kilograms would be assigned to Vega-C, and payloads above 2,350 kilograms would be assigned to Ariane 6.


Try SpaceIntelReport for One Week!

Curious about what's inside the most respected space satellite news journal on the web? Provide us your email address and we'll set you up with a free one week subscription, no strings attached!

Thank you for your request! We will send you a welcome email when your account is ready.