Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Micro-Launch Company

As technology continues to make things smaller and smaller satellites can now be created with vast capabilities that are about the size of your fist or smaller. Today these micro-sats are normally launched in conjunction with some larger payload. They just help to fill up a large rocket.

The trouble is that all launch systems of today are prohibitively expensive even if you are just piggy-backing. (The launch of a CubeSat can be over $100,000) The reason the launch systems of today are so expensive is because most rockets are enormously complex and expensive machines which only fly once and are then destroyed. They also require armies of support to get them prepared and launched and have to meet very special requirements for the satellite that they are launching. It is a very high risk business and an incredibly bloated one.

Large rockets used to be the only way to get anything into orbit. But since we now have micro-sats its time for a micro-launcher.

An opportunity exists to completely re-work the space launch mantra. Instead of big and expensive, launches could be made small and cheap with payloads of just 1-5 pounds using a small disposable launcher.

After all, since the payloads are cheaper and require less precision, a company can create a rocket that they, basically, just point at the sky and light a fuse. It could be made cheaply and with far less precision that any of the larger rockets. More or less it would be an upscaled hobby rocket.

Now, even hobby rockets are not cheap when one starts to reach for high altitudes. The company that works with micro-launches will have to be able to mass produce their vehicle in order to keep the cost down. Rockets that come off the assembly line in droves is not a practice anywhere in the space industry. This is where a scrappy start-up can get an edge.

Now if a company where to be capable of mass-producing orbital/sub-orbital rockets the single problem they might have is whether the demand will meet the supply. There are not a huge number of satellites being created today. The key in the beginning will be to create alternate reasons to launch. Things like space burials, (cremated remains) time-capsule launches, and other less scientific and broader market reasons to send a rocket to space. These alternate sources of revenue would be able to sustain a company until people realize that satellite launches are cheap enough that they can be performed by smaller hobby groups or even individuals. If the price to launch a CubeSat were brought down to under $10,000 then a whole DIY satellite industry would open up.

Up Aerospace is already working towards this goal of an affordable micro-launcher. They are starting like most new space companies by creating a sounding rocket that is able to launch small experiments into sub-orbital space.

The SpaceX Assembly Line
While the mass production of small launchers is a relatively unexplored option the main risk to this business would not be technical problems or even demand. It would be competition from reusable craft like Skylon or even a SpaceX upgrade that makes the micro-launcher too expensive. Reusable spacecraft are expected to bring the cost of orbital launches down to around $10-100 per pound within the next twenty years. It is doubtful that even a rocket with the benefit of economy of scale would be able to match that. It is like the difference between buying a Cessna or a 787 for one trip. If you have to buy the whole 787 for the trip then you will buy the Cessna. But if the 787 is just selling a ticket on one trip, then you will ignore the Cessna.

But though a mass produced disposable rocket may become too expensive, the lessons learned from that early part of the business would help to make a small mass produced reusable rocket. One would have to do some deeper number crunching to see what the margins would be like on this, but it is very likely possible. Not to mention that fact that some micro-sats will pay extra to not have to piggy-back on another satellite.

Overall, the concept of launching ultra-small payloads affordably is untouched. And though the door of opportunity might be closing it has the potential to give someone a chance to get their foot in the door of the industry at a cost significantly less that a full scale launch company.

OTRAG was an early attempt at mass production of space launchers


  1. Could you put the small disposable rocket, loaded with its microsatellite payload, aboard the Space-X launch vehicle? Your small rocket thus becomes a second stage, to lift the microsatellite into a higher orbit. You could conceivably put your microsatellite into a geosynchronous orbit. There might be demand for that.

  2. Just hitch a ride on SpaceX. Use the fuel savings in the price/launch from SpaceX for further goings?