New Startups Are Allowing Satellites to 'Rideshare' All the Way to Space
What happens when you try to launch 1,000 satellites at once?
The sharing economy is hitting spaceflight. A slew of new companies are trying to democratize space access using the mantra that, if you're all going to the same place, why not go together?
In this case, however, we're talking about launching satellites into orbit, something that costs much more than a trip home from the bar. Until now, companies and research groups wanting to launch small satellites had to hope that a much larger company had space on their rockets to stow the smaller satellites.
That's not an ideal arrangement for small companies, however. If you're hitching a ride with a huge company that can afford the several hundred million dollars necessary for a full launch, you're at the whim of that larger company. You fly when that company wants to fly, launch from where it wants to launch, and, if there's a delay or other interruption, you're stuck on the ground until further notice.
Worst of all, you pay what it wants to charge you. Because there's plenty of competition to be a secondary payload on a major launch, you're often subsidizing the cost of the launch.
"One customer we're dealing with now has asked for quotes for launching 1,000 spacecraft at once"
Because of the way large companies charge for space launches, it's actually more expensive, on a per-kilogram basis, to launch small satellites than it is to launch massive ones.
Now, however, a couple companies are buying entire launches from SpaceX or other launch providers, then selling space on that rocket to small satellite manufacturers. Like with Uber or Lyft, it's called "ridesharing."
"Before, you had to try to beg and scrape and hope a primary spacecraft operator would let you fly on their spacecraft, or you had to wait for NASA to get a government label to get on a government launch opportunity," Daniel Lim, of TriSept Corporation, a company functioning as one of these Ubers-of-space, told me. "Now you can split with other companies, go halfsies with other guys, divide it significantly."
Lim says TriSept is in advanced negotiations to buy a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch in February of 2017, and is currently selling spots on that launch. Lim says the advantage of splitting a ride to space ends up being as much as a third cheaper than what companies currently pay to get to space. On a standard launch under the old model, companies might have to pay about $300,000 to get a CubeSat, measuring as small as 30x10x10 cm, into orbit. Lim says that his company is selling spots for as low as $200,000, depending on the technical specifications of the satellite.
Trisept isn't the only one. A company called Spaceflight Inc. has filled up the inaugural launch of its Sherpa satellite-launching ring (basically, a small satellite that holds other satellites, which are then placed into orbit by the Sherpa), which is set to go up on a SpaceX flight later this year.
Lim says it would be possible to launch as many as 1,000 very small satellites on one launch, and, indeed, some of the company's clients have asked it to price out some pretty astounding launch scenarios.
"One customer we're dealing with now has asked for quotes for launching 25, 50, 1,000 spacecraft at once," Lim said.
As you can imagine, it's complicated launching so many satellites at once. Each one needs to have its own orbit, and needs to separate from the rocket at the right time so as to prevent them from crashing into each other.
"If you don't time them and point the spacecraft in the right direction, and provide enough [acceleration] for these spacecraft, they'll collide in orbit," Lim said. "There's a lot of complexity in the separation."
That problem has been more or less solved. Back in November of 2013, one launch vehicle was able to successfully deploy a record of 28 CubeSats. The question satellite operators might soon be asking, then, isn't "do you have room for me?" Instead, it might be "could you please scoot over?"