The price of access to space is coming down. Dramatically.
SpaceX is working on making rockets reusable, a trick that will cut the cost of access to space for humans and large cargos by roughly 90%. But the price of getting into orbit is being slashed by yet another force: a miniaturization revolution. Today a satellite that weighs twenty five pounds—the weight of your backpack–can do the job of a satellite that once weighed four tons, the weight of a Ford Explorer. And, in fact, that tiny satellite can do more than its antique ancestor thanks to radical advances in electronics.
The second revolution is in launch. Cubesats and nanosats are currently being tucked into the empty spaces between full-sized satellites in the nose cones that carry them. But three companies–Rocket Lab, Firefly Space Systems, and Virgin Galactic–are about to introduce low-cost, small rockets able to launch small payloads to orbit.
The result? Satellites and probes are being built in college labs and by small companies. In fact, one company, ThumbSat, has introduced a two-inch by two-inch satellite that weighs a mere nine-tenths of an ounce and costs $20,000 to build and launch.
Meanwhile, SpaceIL, an Israeli non-profit, could be the first private group to take advantage of this miniaturization revolution to land a payload on the moon. SpaceIL is building a washing-machine-sized lander called Sparrow, a lander that will weigh only about 220 pounds. That’s a huge downsize from the Apollo Lunar Lander, which topped the scales at a massive 36,100 pounds—the weight of more than eighteen Smart Cars. SpaceIL has taken the bold step of reserving a slot on a SpaceX Falcon 9R rocket flight which will carry multiple small payloads into Earth orbit. After all the other small satellites carried by the Falcon have been released, the rocket’s upper stage will use the remaining fuel in its tanks to push the Sparrow into a trajectory toward the Moon. The Sparrow will brake as it approaches the Moon and will land on the lunar surface, then will make a 500 meter hop from its first landing spot.
Why the hop? SpaceIL is competing for the Google Lunar X-Prize, a $30 million award that will go to the first private lunar lander that can take pictures and travel 500 meters. Sixteen teams are competing for the Google X-Prize, but if none booked a launch by December 31, 2015, the prize was set to expire. And for a long time it looked as if no competitor would make that deadline. Then SpaceIL became the first of the sixteen competing teams to book a launch.
But that’s not all. New Zealand-based Rocket Lab intends to open a whole new small launch horizon with its Electron Rocket. A traditional rocket is 196 feet tall—nineteen stories. Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is less than 60 feet tall. A traditional rocket costs between $130 million and $430 million to launch. A Rocket Lab rocket will cost a mere $5 million. What’s the catch? A Rocket Lab payload is a mere 330 pounds. But thanks to miniaturization, you can now squeeze the capabilities of a dozen 1960s satellites into a CubeSat or two.
There’s another drawback. Rocket Lab intends to launch its first rocket before the end of 2015. Which means the first Electron Rocket has not yet flown. Nonetheless, a company called Moon Express, located at NASA Ames Research Park in Mountain View, California, has pre-purchased three launches from Rocket Lab. With those launches, Moon Express hopes to launch a 22-pound payload designed to win the Lunar X prize. And, says the Space Development Steering Committee’s chief analyst, John Strickland, lunar landers like the ones from SpaceIL and Moon Express can help us explore the Moon’s poles for water. That lunar water, in turn, can provide rocket fuel for fleets of craft headed for Mars. Or it can provide breathable air and beverages for human settlers.
NASA has shown confidence in Rocket Lab’s low-cost Electron. To quote a Rocket Lab press release, “Rocket Lab has been awarded a Venture Class Launch Services contract from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The contract, valued at $6.95M, is for the launch of a NASA payload to low-Earth Orbit on one of Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicles.”
Cementing the miniaturization revolution in place, Firefly Space Systems, just northwest of Austin, TX, has just received a $5.5 million contract from NASA for a dedicated CubeSat launch. Firefly has its own launch rocket, the Firefly Alpha, a six-foot in diameter rocket made of carbon composite. The Firefly Alpha will be able place an 826 pound payload into a 186-mile-high orbit from Cape Canaveral . Which means the Firefly will be able to deploy a fleet of as many as 33 cubesats in low earth orbit.
Like Rocket Lab, Firefly received a NASA award for one launch. NASA also awarded a contract for one launch of small satellites to Virgin Galactic, whose Launcher One is a rocket that takes off in mid-air from what Virgin Galactic calls a “dedicated carrier aircraft, at an altitude of approximately 35,000 feet.” That “dedicated carrier aircraft” is Virgin Galactic’s 141-foot-wingspan, four-engine, two-fuselage WhiteKnightTwo.
NASA’s contracts with Rocket Lab, Firefly Space Systems, and Virgin Galactic show the space agency’s interest in the CubeSat as a low cost, low-mass alternative satellite with impressive capabilities. In other words, the contracts demonstrate NASA’s determination to encourage what Virgin Galactic calls “the small satellite revolution.” And that revolution is a key step in bringing the cost of space access down. Way, way down.