Winning the SmallSat Launcher War?

Alasdair Allan
3 min readMay 31, 2017

At the end of last week, right in the middle of their 10 day launch window, Rocket Labs USA became one of the first of the new generation of smallsat launchers to launch a rocket, and the first to reach space.

Ignition of the Rocket Labs Electron. (📷: Rocket Labs USA)

Right now there is a fierce war going on amongst the new entrants in the launcher market for the the growing small satellite market. With multiple satellite constellations heading to Low Earth Orbit in the next few years to provide global communications coverage there are going to be a lot more lift needed dedicated to smallsats.

Launch of the Electron from New Zealand. (📷: Rocket Labs USA)

The Electron is entirely made of carbon-composite and uses a 3D-printed oxygen/kerosene pump fed engine for its main propulsion system. It has been designed to carry payloads of up to 330lb (150kg) into a 500km sun synchronous orbit.

The Rocket Labs Rutherford Engine. (📷: Alasdair Allan)

While the rocket reached space, passing the Kármán line, it failed to reach orbit. However, Rocket Labs confirmed a good first stage burn and separation, separation of the payload fairing, and second stage ignition.

Launch of Rocket Labs “It’s a test.” (📹: Rocket Labs)

While the initial flight of the Electron was a qualified success the code name of the launch tells the tale, nick named “It’s a test” last week’s launch was just that, lifting an inert mass and not a satellite. The company has no plans to put a real payload on top of their rocket until their third launch later this year.

However, last week’s launch of the Rocket Labs Electron follows the initial test flight of Vector Space System’s Vector-R from the Mojave desert in California earlier last month.

Unlike last week’s Rocket Labs launch, the Vector test flight remained under 50,000 feet for regulatory purposes, and did not reach space. The Arizona-based rocket company plans to begin commercial launches next year, and the rocket should be capable of launching payloads up to 100lb (45kg) into an 800km orbit.

Launch of the Vector-R from Mojave. (📹: Under The Radar)

The availability of low cost piggy-back opportunities on board medium, and heavy-lift launch vehicles has attracted small satellite payloads in rapidly growing numbers. But right now they are mostly launched as secondary payloads to larger, and far more expensive, satellites. Or as payloads on a cargo flights to the ISS, and then deployed from the airlock.

That means smallsats are constrained in both orbit, and launch schedule. It can take a long time for large payloads to be ready, and your cubesat can sit on the shelf waiting for a launch slot for years. The arrival of these dedicated smallsat launchers provides capability to launch within three months of demand. It also means that you don’t have to be an educational institution to get your satellite a launch slot.

If you want to put your satellite aboard a Rocket Labs Electron shared ride launch, the first open slot is towards the end of the year. Price to orbit for a 1U cubesat is just $77,000, and competition may well push that downwards.