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The Small-Rocket Revolution

The Small-Rocket Revolution

Sunday, 25 February, 2018 - 09:45

When SpaceX's 230-foot Falcon Heavy blasted off on Feb. 6, it became a global sensation. But a much quieter launch three days earlier may turn out to be more important. That's when a 31-foot rocket known as the SS-520-5 took off from Japan's Uchinoura Space Center. It's the smallest rocket ever to place an object into Earth orbit -- and it could be a harbinger of big changes to come.

For decades, getting anything into space has been risky, expensive and time-consuming. Even SpaceX commonly faces delays and accidents, and its reusable rockets can take months to press back into service. In the past few years, though, dozens of other companies have been trying to develop diminutive rockets that could reduce the cost and risk of satellite launches. If they succeed, they just might transform the space business.

Smallsats, defined as satellites weighing less than 1,100 pounds, have been around since the 1970s. They grew more practical in the 1990s, as engineers started incorporating cheap, off-the-shelf electronics, such as phone sensors, into their design. Small satellites were less expensive to launch and often more up-to-date than their bigger counterparts, which could take more than a decade to develop. Perhaps most important, smallsats could be inexpensively replaced when they failed.

Entrepreneurs quickly saw the opportunities. Shoebox-sized satellites with solar panels and cameras can now be used for reconnaissance work, weather and climate observations, disaster monitoring, and much else. As costs have fallen -- customizable smallsats go for as little as $11,000 these days -- business opportunities have expanded. Planet Labs Inc. now operates more than 200 Earth-observing smallsats for governments, agricultural companies, investment firms and others. With some 6,200 smallsats expected to launch over the next two decades, the possibilities seem almost limitless.

There's only one problem: how to get them into orbit?

At the moment, most smallsat operators buy space on rockets carrying bigger and more expensive gear. Last year, Planet Labs packed 88 smallsats onto an Indian government rocket carrying a big reconnaissance satellite. But this approach is far from ideal: It means being at the mercy of space agencies or private operators that may have different priorities (and schedules). Plus, smallsat operators may be looking to place a probe into orbit at an altitude that a given rocket can't reach.

Smaller, cheaper rockets would be one obvious solution to this problem. But small payloads also make it harder to turn a profit. SpaceX's Falcon 1 program promised smallsat launches for $6 million starting in 2006. Just three years later, the company concluded that it "could not make Falcon 1 work as a business."

Yet demand for smallsats has soared since then -- and so has investment in small rocketry. Rocket Lab Inc.'s Electron rocket, which will be able to carry up to 500 pounds for as little as $4.9 million, had its first successful launch in January. Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit and Tucson-based Vector Space Systems are planning launches of competing products later this year. Meanwhile, the US. Air Force is requesting $193 million over the next five years to develop launch vehicles for smaller payloads.

At least 35 such vehicles are in the works worldwide.Many of these rockets won't get off the ground. But those that do should reduce the cost and time needed to take a satellite from idea to orbit, and allow for smaller ones to be quickly upgraded or swapped out.

For the military, that could mean the rapid replacement of a navigation satellite that's been destroyed in combat; for a commercial operator, it could be an opportunity to guarantee uninterrupted service. But perhaps most important, small rockets will allow scientists and inventors to rethink what's possible in space.


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