If you had any lingering doubts about interest in smallsats, a visit to the latest Conference on Small Satellites, held this month at Utah State University, would likely have erased them. This year’s event attracted more than 2,200 people, several hundred more than the record set last year, for four days of sessions and a cubesat-specific workshop the weekend before. Dozens of companies exhibited smallsats and components for them on two floors of the university’s student center.
The surge of interest in smallsats has resulted in a corresponding surge of new proposals for launching them. Those efforts fall into two camps: a new generation of small launch vehicles versus greater use of rideshares on larger launch vehicles.
A standing-room-only crowd packed a small lecture hall on campus for a side meeting during the conference about small launch vehicles. On stage were representatives of Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab, Vector Space Systems and Virgin Galactic, each developing small launchers slated to begin flying within the next two years.
Those companies, not surprisingly, felt bullish about their prospects. “We see a big market out there,” said Brad Schneider of Rocket Lab. “We see a big demand from a U.S. domestic standpoint as well as internationally.”
“We’ve got surprising demand,” said James Cantrell of Vector Space. “People are literally banging our door down trying to get rockets because there’s just not enough capacity out there.”
There was an undercurrent of skepticism at the meeting, though, particularly given those companies’ desires to ramp up to monthly or even weekly launches. Is there really enough demand to warrant that many launches? Cantrell acknowledged that “there’s the potential for a lack of demand to support all four of us” at those high launch rates.
That skepticism may also have historical roots. A decade ago, SpaceX was the champion of smallsat developers. Its Falcon 1 offered a low-cost launch option without the hassle of either dealing with Russian vehicles or flying as a secondary payload. Yet SpaceX quietly retired the Falcon 1 after a 2009 launch.
“I think I’m okay at selling stuff, and I had a hard time selling Falcon 1,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell in a conference keynote. “The market was just not there.”
SpaceX is instead trying to serve the smallsat market with various kinds of rideshare opportunities. That includes “dedicated rideshares,” where SpaceX sells a Falcon 9 launch to a payload aggregator like Spaceflight, who then fills it with a variety of small satellites.
Even the company’s larger Falcon Heavy could support smallsats, she argued, using the EELV Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA) to fly them on launches of larger spacecraft. “There should be a lot of extra capacity on this rocket,” she said. “Hopefully we will fly a lot of ESPA or ESPA-like rings underneath the primary payload to provide regular access for you all to fly.”
Given her experience and current plans, is she skeptical about this new fleet of small launch vehicles that often aren’t that different than the Falcon 1? Not necessarily. “I’m hoping that the case has changed enough,” she said, referring to both the growth in numbers of satellites being built as well as investment into the smallsat industry. “I think the parameters in the industry have changed dramatically.”
If she’s wrong about that assessment — if, say, those constellations of smallsats frequently proposed today don’t materialize — SpaceX has little to lose. Small launch vehicle developers, on the other hand, have staked their businesses to the growth of smallsats. In essence, those companies better hope their competition is right.