Being able to launch a small satellite payload into space is one of the biggest obstacles for government, commercial and research institutions. Smallsat industry experts expect as many as 20,000 small satellites to be launched over the next 10 years.
A federally funded research and development center, The Aerospace Corporation, used the Small Satellite Conference in Logan as the location for announcing new standard ideas for launching smallsat units into space.
Currently, there are two main ways for a small satellite to be launched into space. A dedicated launch is expensive and is designed for each specific payload including systems with different volume, mass and dynamics.
Aerospace Senior Project Engineer Carrie O’Quinn says the more cost-effective method of transporting cargo into space is through the ride-share program.
“It’s kind of like Uber for satellites,” she said. “So you just book your ride. Sometimes that is two years in advance of when you actually launch.”
Disadvantages to this method of booking two years in advance of deployment could include problems with the spacecraft, licensing delays, a change in cargo or a number of unforeseen circumstances. These problems could mean a company will be bumped from a scheduled launch, forcing the business to rebook.
“The way we currently do ride share, it’s not really conducive to fixing that and going on the next launch,” O'Quinn said. “We are launching things, we are innovating, we are moving on and two years is just far too long for many companies to wait to launch again.”
To help make the launching of small satellites more cost-effective and timely, O’Quinn says the industry needs a standardized predefined launch configuration, including packaging that can be switched to and from different spacecraft.
Aerospace hopes a new Launch Unit, or Launch-U, will become the interchangeable industry standard used in all three of the most popular mid-sized small satellites. If industry, academia and government entities use the Launch-U configurations, Aerospace believes the standard will maximize launchability.
O’Quinn is recommending the 45 x45x60 centimeters (1.5x1.5x2 feet) system include mechanical interfaces, electrical interfaces and a separation system as part of the standards. Because, she explains, current integration is so individualized it limits the industry’s ability to utilize available spacecraft. This new unit standard would be more like working with toy building blocks. Units would stack one on top of the other.
“A couple of years ago, the Vandenberg Airforce Base was shut down for about two months because of a wildfire," O'Quinn said. "In that same time, a hurricane hit Florida. Once you get to that situation you are sitting there for Mother Nature to pass by. If you could go on a different launch vehicle you are now able to still get your satellite into space and do your mission.”
The next step in the process will be for O’Quinn to work within the industry to develop hardware and other technical solutions to support the Launch-U idea. She is asking satellite manufacturers to begin building to the product standard and for companies to consider ways the system could save their business money.
Jamie Morin, executive director of the Center for Space Policy and Strategy at Aerospace Corporation, said the Launch-U will not be required by spacecraft developers but he hopes the industry will ultimately use the system. This, he says, will help the US to be seen as a leader in finding ways to streamline small satellite launches.
“Today the government is focusing much more on enabling a broader space economy, so innovations like this Launch-U concept is really all about facilitating the development of a global and American space economy, and offering up opportunities for real leadership,” Morin said.
The US is competing with Russia and China for launch contracts. Right now the US appears to be leading in the number of government launches, but China and Russia are in the lead when it comes to private contract launches.
The Launch-U system is one of many satellite system ideas being considered by Aerospace and other research and development centers internationally. With the projected increase in spacecraft deployment Morin says the industry recognizes the need for not only launching standards but space transportation and debris removal standards as well.