NASA is backing development of dozens of small satellites, similar to these three-unit CubeSats, measuring about 12 inches by 4 inches, for science missions. It wants dedicated launchers from the private sector to supplement the current ride-share program

Jul 13, 2015 NASA turning to commercial sector for dedicated CubeSat launchers

Sen—For its latest class of commercial launch services NASA is thinking small—very small. Bids are due Monday for the agency’s new Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS), with the goal of flying a payload weighing 60 kilograms—the equivalent of about 44 cubesats—or a pair of launches that carry 30 kilograms each.

“A lot of our science community has been looking to find ways to get things that are more affordable, and we’ve seen spacecraft sizes starting to drop,” said Mark Wiese, chief of the Flight Projects Branch with NASA’s Launch Services Program.

The 15-year-old office, based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, brokers rides on commercial launchers for NASA science, education and exploration missions. For cubesat missions, that has meant booking secondary spots aboard big rockets.

So far, NASA has arranged piggyback rides for about 36 cubesats and has about 50 in development to fly over the next three years, said Garrett Skrobot, a Launch Services Program mission manager.

Flying as a secondary, costs between $250,000 and $500,000 per launch of a typical three-cubesat (or what NASA calls a “3U”) payload.

The price isn’t bad, but piggybacking a ride has its disadvantages. For starters, the cubesat operator can’t pick his or her intended orbit, but is restricted to flying wherever the primary payload is going.

“We’re looking to be able to find more of a dedicated ride for some of these missions that have more complex science,” Skrobot said. “They are requiring not to be piggybacks anymore, not to go where the prime is going, but to identify orbits where they can do scientific experiments on their own and get more data.”

With fleets of cubesats- and small satellite-based networks in development for commercial companies—everything from weather forecasting to high-speed Internet service to Earth imaging—NASA thinks the time is right to test the waters for dedicated small satellite launchers.

To attract as many bidders as possible, NASA is giving launch service providers the option to fly 60 kilograms in one or in two flights.

"They’re all coming at it from difference angles, different costs. There may be a cost benefit to one company’s solution to do it in two flights versus just somebody doing it in one.  We wanted to make sure we threw a wide net out there, and gave the opportunity to as many companies as were trying to be the first to get out,” Wiese said.

NASA hasn’t yet selected the cubesats that will fly on the demo launch service, which will deposit its payload or payloads in a 435-km high orbit, inclined between 38 degrees and 98 degrees relative to the equator.

“This is a demonstration flight. I have plenty of U-class payloads that want to go fly” in that orbit, Skrobot said.

“We want to get this demonstration one out of the way, and then work from that point on to see how we could use this in the future,” he added.

The competition is expected to draw a wide response. Startups in the small satellite launch industry include Firefly, RocketLab and Virgin Galactic.

“We want to buy something off the commercial market that’s going to serve multiple needs,” Wiese said. “We see options that are vertical launch. There are options that are air-launched. There are options that launch off of a rail … We’re definitely open. We don’t want to drive that design.”

“We see this emerging commercial launch capability as something the world is going to need,” he added. “This is a fun thing for us, to try to help see a new capability come to market.”

NASA is looking to award multiple contracts, if budget permits, before Sept. 30, 2015. The launch or launches would take place by April 2018. The long lead-time is so that NASA can educate itself about the new market.

“We’ve set up the milestones in this contract so we can kind of shadow the commercial providers’ development, attend their reviews in a mentor capacity. It gives us the time to understand this so we can be a smarter buyer when there’s a true science requirement that comes and potentially uses use if the demonstration is successful,” Wiese said.

NASA wouldn’t say how much money it has for the VCLS program.

“Price is obviously a big driver in our competition,” Wiese said. “We want to see what they can bring to the table. We know it's going to be a little bit more than what we’re getting today in a ride-share agreement, but over time we’d expect these costs to be driven down,” he said. “You’d still probably pay a premium for a dedicated orbit, versus being in a ride-share situation, but we expect this to get competitive.”