US military leaders are bullish about small satellites as tools to spy on adversaries and provide secure communications, but there’s just one problem: There isn’t a good way to get them into space, on demand.
Inspired by NASA’s partnerships with rocket makers like SpaceX, the Pentagon is turning to private industry, as half a dozen companies, most backed by venture capitalists, are working to launch small satellites more cheaply than ever to meet the demands of a growing number of small-satellite startups.
“There’s already a lot of commercial money going into development for these boosters,” Todd Master, a program manager at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency told Quartz at the Space Symposium, a conference bringing together space companies and government officials in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “But nobody is asking them to be much more responsive. Our discussions with them are: Could you go faster? Could you go from anywhere? And they’re like, ‘Yeah, but nobody is asking us to do that.’”
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DARPA will ask, by announcing a contest with a $10-million grand prize to any company that can launch two small satellites into orbit in a matter of days. Adding to the difficulty: Competitors will be told where their first launch site is just weeks before the contest, and given the details of the payload and where it is going days before. Once they make their first successful launch, they will have just a few days to go to a second site and launch again. That’s compared to timelines longer than six months for most launches.
“There were not even 100 flights to space in all of last year, in contrast with nearly 100,000 airline flights per day,” Tim Ellis, CEO of rocket start-up Relativity Space and an industry adviser to the National Space Council, told Quartz. “Incentives like the DARPA Launch Challenge help catalyze further investments in the industry to change that.”
The hurdles are not just technical
Peter Beck is the CEO of Rocket Lab, the first of the new small rocket companies to actually deliver satellites into orbit. His company will examine the rules before deciding whether to compete, but he told Quartz that “it’s great to see government validation of our business model.” Currently, small satellites launch as secondary payloads when they can fit in behind large spacecraft typically used by governments and established satellite firms. Rocket Lab and its competitors want to provide dedicated service to the next generation of small spacecraft.
The challenge itself won’t be easy, since the obstacles to frequent launch are as much legal and operational as technical.
“It’s a third the rocket, a third regulatory, and a third infrastructure, and obviously the range fits into the infrastructure and regulatory piece,” said Beck, whose US-based company operates a private launch site in New Zealand. “In order to get frequent, rapid, affordable launch, we had to go to a different country. Everyone acknowledges the problem here in the US with getting that frequent and reliable launch from ranges. This is what the challenge is really about, it’s less about the rocket and the technology, but how do we break down some of those barriers to entry?”
Indeed, the timing of the contest is in part timed to the Federal Aviation Administration’s launch licensing process, which can take more than 180 days. But at the Space Symposium, cutting through red tape has turned into a national security issue.
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, the civilian official overseeing military space programs, described the current constellation of US satellites as “exquisite glass houses” built “in a world without stones.” Now, as Russia and China demonstrate anti-satellite weapons, there is a need for more resilient systems. One approach is to use many small satellites, operating as a distributed network, instead of one large, inviting target.
“What we’re defending is far more expensive than the cost of the attack, and we’ve got to flip that,” US Air Force chief of staff David Goldfein told reporters at the conference.
Beyond resilience, small satellites could offer new capabilities that the US currently lacks. North Korea’s ballistic missile program has inspired renewed interest in using space-based sensors to detect attacks. The Defense Innovation Unit, Experimental (DIUx), another Pentagon technology program, is funding start-ups developing small radar satellites and machine-learning tools to analyze their data.
Rapid launch of small satellites has eluded the US military for years. DARPA alone has funded at least five previous attempts, including SpaceX’s first rocket, Falcon 1, and a scheme to launch satellites from fighter jets. The current Defense Department official who signed off on this contest, undersecretary Michael Griffin, worked on rapid launch systems as a leader in the Strategic Defense Initiative in the late 1980s.
The size of the prize matters
All told, DARPA will offer $30 million in prizes to competing firms, who are invited to meet with government officials at a Los Angeles on May 23.
Aside from Relativity, which isn’t likely to have a rocket ready in time to compete, potential competitors include Rocket Lab; Vector, a firm started by veteran engineers Jim Cantrell and John Garvey; Virgin Orbit, a Richard Branson-backed company developing an air-launch system; and Astra Space, a stealthy startup that recently scrubbed its first test launch.
“With a number of dedicated launch vehicles coming online, the US government has a huge opportunity to take advantage of the increased capacity and diversity being driven by the commercial market and private investment,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said. “As is usually the case, the marketplace will determine what concepts and platforms survive and thrive.”
For a sense of how hard this, consider that the $30 million is roughly comparable to the amount offered by the XPrize Foundation’s race to land robots on the moon. “For a very small launch vehicle, that’s lifting less than 20kg to orbit, that’s a very good prize,” Rocket Lab’s Beck said. “For us, it’s in line roughly with what we would be charging a customer anyway. For others, it’s probably not enough to warrant doing.”
Master said that, while the money won’t necessarily cover the expenses of the largest companies, the possibilities of follow-on launch contracts from the US military provides an additional incentive.
How to launch small satellites has always been a “chicken and egg problem,” Master said, with small satellite companies failing because they couldn’t get to space, and small rocket companies failing because there weren’t enough small satellites to fly. With private investors now attacking the problem from both sides, the government has little choice but to join in.
“We’re seeing that breaking from both sides,” Master said.