LOGAN, Utah — ExoLaunch of Germany was responsible for integrating and preparing the launch of a large cluster of small satellites during the July 5 Soyuz mission from the new Vostochy Cosmodrome.
The Berlin-based company is now looking at an increased launch cadence working with several rockets at a time when the small-launcher business is trying to catch up with the smallsat/cubesat market.
Launch integrators such as ExoLaunch will be important go-betweens for customers that are unable to determine what lies beyond the price of a given vehicle.
ExoLaunch Launch Services Director Jeanne Medvedeva and Smallsat Launch Project Manager Connor Jones jointly responded to questions.
How did the Vostochny launch campaign with Glavkosmos go?
Our first ride share mission with Soyuz was implemented in 2013 with the Bion-M primary payload from the Baikonur spaceport. We integrated several German cubesats for that launch working directly with Samara Space Center, the Soyuz launch vehicle manufacturer. Since then, we’ve conducted numerous launch campaigns for Soyuz, launching on each mission between 10 to 30 cubesats and microsatellites.
The recent launch campaign has been the best one so far. Everything was aligned – our enhanced proficiency and flexibility, a strong motivation to integrate a challenging cluster of 28 satellites as best we can, a very professional campaign arrangement by the Russian entities, Glavkosmos and TsENKI, a strong integration team of the Fregat upper stage manufacturer NPO Lavochkin, and a beautiful summer season at the advanced launch facilities of the new Vostochny spaceport.
In addition to the ExoLaunch team, our customers also brought several large teams to checks on their satellites before integrating into our EXOpod deployers and with the upper stage adapter. Some days of the campaign saw almost 30 of us preparing the satellites for launch. We’re always willing to involve the teams of the customers into the campaign, which is especially appreciated by universities. This is a great practical experience for students. Overall, we’re very satisfied with the campaign and the launch results.
Are customs issues still a hassle, or are they now easier?
We always plan all shipments in advance and take it seriously. But I wouldn’t say that it’s as bad as some people would have you believe. Our experience in international logistics helps a lot and we’ve developed some very reliable logistics partners. We integrate most of the smallsats in our facilities in Berlin and then try to deliver the satellites to the launch site as late as possible. This gives our customers the most time possible for performing any pre-launch tests on their satellites. This way, we’re not keeping flight hardware at the launch site for no reason.
In this campaign, all the satellites were delivered to the spaceport less than a month before the launch, followed by the immediate arrival of our launch team. We had a quick and smooth campaign, and all satellites were integrated with the upper stage’s adapter two weeks prior to the launch. This was followed by the payload fairing encapsulation, after which satellite access is no longer available. So we feel quite confident in our logistics procedures, which allows us to pull off such a tight schedule before the launch.
How would you compare Vostochny with Baikonur or Plesetsk from a customer’s view?
In our experience, each launch site can be comfortably used for small satellites preparations and launches. As a team, we do enjoy conducting launch campaigns, and often stay up until the launch itself to observe all the launch vehicle operations, even when our own work is finished. At each launch site we have a spacious, isolated clean room to prepare flight hardware, and we’re greatly supported by the launch partners during all joint operations with the launch vehicle.
We deliver the best possible accommodation, food, entertainment, launch site excursions, and launch event arrangement to the customers at each launch site. Moreover, we’re increasing our launch cadence and getting ready to support missions from other international launch sites.
Is the launch market now diverse enough that you have, at least starting in 2020, options for each of your requested launch dates?
We continuously examine all available launch options and major analytical reports on the launch market. In fact, the launches we’re involved in are already quite regular and can meet the demands of most of the small satellite market.
However, we hope to see a more diverse launch market within the next couple of years. There’s a growing demand for certain specific orbits which can’t be reached on typical ride-share missions. In this context, we closely cooperate with some small-launcher developers working on small-satellite cluster configurations that can be accommodated on small launchers, while working on cost efficiency to be competitive with the ride-share launches that commercial and universities’ customers are used to and can afford.
For example, we recently announced cooperation with Virgin Orbit, whose LauncherOne will be very capable of delivering small satellites to low and mid inclination orbits, destinations which are quite rare with ride-share and will be very interesting to many of our European customers.
In addition, we plan to deliver small satellites to custom orbits on ride-share missions through in-space transportation services offered by Momentus, which is a new promising technology for the launch market.
We see the launch market changing significantly within the next two years to become more diverse and responsive. And we’re already adapting our experience and advanced launch and deployment solutions to these changes while maintaining high quality services and competitive pricing.
What are the upcoming missions for you this year and next?
Our next launch campaign will start in less than two months. Next year we will be on several ride-share missions of medium-lift launch vehicles with small satellites, and we plan to deliver payloads for some of new emerging small launchers.
Have you noticed a gradual increase in mass/volume among commercial cubesats?
Yes, there’s a clear trend. Commercial cubesats and microsatellites are getting heavier and bigger after their first tech demo missions.
Does a launch provider like you need to establish relations with satellite builders, especially those building for customers, not themselves, or is your interface mainly with the owners?
We establish the interfaces individually for each project. First and foremost this should be efficient and convenient for the customer. During the launch preparations, there are technical issues that come up, as well as licensing/authorization tasks, so normally both the manufacturer and owner are involved in the process.
How do you see the ride share vs dedicated launch discussion?
We consider many factors such us launch availability, required orbital parameters, launch period, launch budget, regulatory requirements, and satellite type/mass/dimensions to decide on a suitable launch opportunity.
What is your role with the launch providers in facilitating satellite identification post launch?
We work jointly with the launch authority on the ballistic analysis, and together we deliver accurate state vectors and TLE data before the launch. We also provide quick delivery of the actual state vectors right after the launch. We are in constant contact with the customer on the launch date, and we also interface with NORAD to help identify the objects in the cluster.
Is it your job to help find a group insurance for your launches, or do you let the customers handle that individually?
Third-party liability insurance is always part of our contract. For any other insurance requirements, we always handle it individually. Some commercial customers with a constellation of small satellites already have an insurance package. For others, we handle the insurance on our own.
There are 100-plus smallsat launchers in development. Even if only 20 or so are credible and financially solid, that’s a lot. How do you separate them when booking flights? Do you make a judgment on schedule credibility or is it price price price?
We consider 20 as an overestimate. In our view, the real projects are closer to a dozen, perhaps less, as far as promising launchers that will compete and hold their value for the smallsat market. It is important to note that we are only at the beginning of this race however. We know the most important items for customers are launch cost, schedule credibility and orbital parameters.
The more launch options we have on the market, the more efficient our launch solutions are.