Space Is Open For Business: The Invention of the Cubesat and Low-Earth-Orbit Rocket

Space Is Open For Business: The Invention of the Cubesat and Low-Earth-Orbit Rocket

Not too many years ago, it was very challenging and expensive to launch and operate a satellite. That has changed dramatically over the past few years and now launching and operating a satellite is much easier and far less costly – and those trends are expected to continue and accelerate. Thus, many more governments, companies, organizations, and individuals will have access to space to pursue their governmental and commercial purposes. This change has come about due to two technological momentum drivers that have catalysed the old space industry to where it is today. The first is the invention of the CubeSat, a 10x10x12cm cube, largely using commercial of the shelf (COTS) components, which has created a new type of satellite form-factor that is a fraction of the size and cost of the satellites of the prior generation. The second is the commercial development of the low-earth-orbit launch vehicle, whichmakes the launch of these new CubeSat satellites much easier and accessible and far less expensive.

The CubeSat

Before the CubeSat, the only way to get an asset into space was via a massive school bus sized satellite, operating in a geostationary orbit (GEO, 36,000 km), costing millions of dollars and years of effort to make. Years of Moore’s law has exponentially decreased the size and cost of satellites and increased the power of the electronics so that now companies can put COTS sensors on this tissue box sized form-factor-the CubeSat, which can operate in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO, 500-1200km) and orbit the Earth every 90 minutes.

Now Launching And Operating A Satellite Is Much Easier And Far Less Costly – And Those Trends Are Expected To Continue And Accelerate

As an example of this trend, one company, Spire Global, now utilizes this new form-factor in LEO to put various sensors for maritime, aircraft, and weather monitoring and prediction. Spire has the largest constellation of general-purpose satellites in space, with over 80 CubeSats in LEO.

This new form-factor has helped to lower the barrier of entry for space significantly. While this development was significant, it was not sufficient on its own to get to where we are today. There also had to be a new way to get this new type of satellite in orbit. Therefore, the second momentum driver in the space industry was the invention of the Low-Earth-Orbit rocket.

The Low-Earth-Orbit Rocket

A huge bottleneck in the space industry was access to launch rockets. Before SpaceX, the only American-made rocket was United Launch Alliance’s Atlas and Delta rockets. SpaceX disrupted the industry with the Falcon 9. However, all of these rockets are designed to send the school bus sized satellites to GEO. This was not ideal for getting these tiny tissue-box sized satellites to LEO.

Therefore, the LEO rocket was invented, which carries smaller approximately 200kg payloads, compared to SpaceX’s Falcon9, which carries approximately 20,000 kg. For all of the obvious reasons, LEO rockets are much less expensive and can be launched with increased frequency. This allowed space to be democratized further for people to better access and put assets in space.

Rocket Lab led this new trend of tiny launch vehicle. Rocket Lab has successfully launched its Electron Rocket 9 times deploying 40 satellites into space. It will be launching at a monthly launch cadence by the end of 2019 and expects to launch at a weekly launch cadence by the end of 2020.

Beyond the physical act of launch itself, Rocket Lab has played a pivotal role in reshaping the way of launching and procuring spacecraft, specifically by government customers. Missions that previously would have taken 4 to 5 years can now be in the orbit in less than 18 months, largely due to the streamlined procurement processes instigated by Rocket Lab. This has had a tremendous impact on responsiveness and resiliency for small satellite customers, and it plays a role in maintaining U.S. space superiority.

For the first time, rockets are available on demand and waiting for the payload to be ready for launch – that is not something the small satellite industry has ever had until Electron. Space is open for business.

Weekly Brief

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