The tiny cubesat industry has been getting a lot of press lately. These small satellites are popular with universities, government labs, and NewSpace startups like Planetary Resources (with their Arkyd asteroid-hunting satellite). While new technology has allowed spacecraft housekeeping functions to be shrunk to fit these diminutive cubesats, launch vehicle technology has not progressed the same way. Getting these payloads into orbit has generally been a matter of waiting to hitch a ride with a larger expensive spacecraft. This means that cubesat developers may have a satellite ready to fly, but they have to wait a long time to get a ride to orbit. The problem has been the lack of a low-cost, dedicated cubesat rocket.
That is about to change as NASA’s Launch Services Program just issued contracts to three new launch vehicle developers for demonstration missions for boosters designed specifically for small payloads. The “Venture Class Launch Services” (VCLS) contract awards totaled over $17M and went to RocketLab USA, Firefly Space Systems, and Virgin Galactic. Each needs to fly a demo mission by April of 2018.
This is a great development for both the cubesat community and for the commercial space industry. It will make access to orbit much easier for the smallsat folks, which should only encourage more missions of that class. It will also help newcomers like Firefly and RocketLab establish themselves as new players in the commercial launch arena.