White Knight 2 with cargo – © TSC and Virgin Galactic – image from Space.com
If there was a good way to describe how to get satellites built and launched into space, it could summed up by: You’re going to need a load of money.
And then probably some more.
Decent-size satellite programs have typically cost anywhere between a few million pounds to multi-million pounds. For most government or agency sanctioned missions, a ballpark of £10M to £200M is reasonable, more is better. The GOCE satellite came in at over £400M, JWST is already over budget to the tune of billions of dollars.
So how much chance would a micro-company have at building and launching its technology? Especially as the company had only a few staff and very limited resources? Even £10M is the stuff of dreams or hopefully a 20-year vision. It’s not the type of cash that most small companies would have.
And if most of the budget is tied up in launch costs, including licencing and insurance, what hope is there is your total technology budget is comfortably less than £50,000?
It isn’t enough to be smart on the technology side, as in the case of CubeSats. Innovative as they are, you still have to fight to get a place on a scheduled mission launch, one that is still controlled by agencies or large companies.
What if you want to be a true pioneer and do the whole thing by yourself?
A realistically small budget
Instead of talking about millions, say that you only have £50,000 and could maybe get another £50,000. Like we’ve seen very small beans in the space industry.
But say that with this money you had a stripped-down light weight satellite maybe 20 kgs in weight. You may possibly have some form of propulsion test bed on in (like this very promising one in Michigan) and you wanted to test out a few other technologies, such as radiation hardening coatings, compact antennas or high resolution cameras.
Provided that you had these technologies to a decent working breadboard/engineering model level, the money would be spent getting them flight-ready. You could employ lean techniques to qualify the hardware, really strip down the requirements to the guts of what’s needed. You could simplify your process, avoiding the typical engineering bloat (like SpaceX are trying to do). You could drive progress on results rather than “meetings”.
All this you could do…but you’d still face the task of getting it launched. And up until recently this is going to cost a lot of money.
How the big boys do it
How much does it cost to launch a satellite into low Earth orbit (around 400 to 800 km) or geostationary orbit (around 35,000 km above the Earth)?
- Taking the Ariane 5 as an example, for satellites up to around 10 tonnes, you are looking at approximately $100M+ (or around £65M) for the launch cost.
- If Elon Musk continues to be successful with the Falcon 9 problem, this may drop to around $55M for the same payload (obviously ArianeSpace are not the best pleased about that!), but you are still talking tens of millions.
- The smaller Russian systems and the new Vega launcher and still going to cost a few millions of pounds.
So you don’t really have an option if you have £100,000.
A new alternative for Micro-Tier Primes
Some companies have recognised this gap in the market and have tried to fill it either with conventional technology or with new ideas and work arounds (more on this in a second).
The most interesting one for me (and Corvos Astro Engineering) is Interorbital. They offer ultra-small satellite makers (essentially “micro-tier Primes”) a way to get their technology to space though rocket launches. Prices vary for orbit height but are not exorbitant – £2500 ($4000) per kilogram of weight is the lowest.
Suddenly, that £50,000 is looking a lot more useful.
What’s interesting is that if Interorbital can do this and be booked up until 2016, there is nothing stopping other people. All that’s need is some investment and a launch site (theirs is in the Mojave Desert). The desire is certainly there.
The Air-Based Option
A different approach is to fly a specially fitted-out aeroplane to high altitude and launch a smaller payload into orbit. This feat would seem pretty much impossible a decade or so ago, but with the advent of Virgin Galactic (which flies up to 100 km above the Earth) suddenly it is not so far-fetched. Currently the price tag is between $1M and $2M but this may come down.
Recently Boeing received funding to develop an airplane-based launch technology (launched from an F-15 of all things!). The plan is to reduce the cost of small satellite launches by up to 66%. Still, not quite in our theoretical price range but interesting for the future none the less.
Of these, then, the most realistic is the continued development and emergence of small rocket-based companies. This seems the most tried and tested of all and it would be easier to craft a business model from it.
So maybe in the next few years it will be possible to define your own destiny in space and have complete control over your satellite, its technology and its launch by dealing with rocket-based small payload launch companies. And with it, a new exciting space race may emerge – the age of the Micro-Tier Prime.