SpaceWorks Enterprise has released an update to its nano- and micro-satellite market analysis study that indicates that between 121 to 188 spacecraft weighing 1-50 kg will need to be launched in 2020. This is a significant increase from the 33 satellites launched last year.
“The Nano/Microsatellite Market Assessment by SpaceWorks shows that nano/microsatellite launches have grown by an average of 8.6% per year since 2000, with an expected 16.8% growth per year over the next 7 years (2013-2020),” according to a SpaceWorks press release.
“Small satellites continue to gain traction as their utility becomes apparent to a diverse user base,” stated Mr. Dominic DePasquale, Director of Washington D.C. Operations for SpaceWorks. “Our quantitative research confirms that small satellites have proven their value and that the market is likely entering a growth phase. We offer our study’s summary presentation as a resource for the community and for those interested in understanding this market better.”
The report is based upon publicly announced nano- and micro-satellite projects as well as projections. So, it might not cover all of the projects currently underway, particularly military ones that are being kept secret.
“Analysis of trends by sector show that nano/microsatellite development continues to be led by the civil sector (including academic), but the defense/intelligence community is showing increased interest and involvement,” the report states. “Analysis of trends by purpose suggests that applications for nano/microsatellites are diversifying, with increased use in the future for science, Earth observation, and reconnaissance missions.”
The report included some interesting information on the launch vehicles now being used for sending these satellites into space.
The interesting thing about the above charts is that there are no dedicated launch vehicles for nano-and micro-satellites. These satellites are primarily launched as secondary payloads; in some case, they might be clustered together on smaller launch vehicles.
This raises an interesting question, which the study doesn’t address, of what happens if new launch vehicles aimed at these market segments become available over the next seven years. The table below, which I compiled, shows launch vehicles that are now under development around the world aimed at launching payloads weighing up to 250 kg. (If I have left any projects off the list, please let me know and I’ll update this table.)
(Table updated on 2/21 with NS-1 rocket, Haas 2, Neptune, and LM-MLV rockets. A special shout out to Theo Pirard of the Space Information Center.)
The larger vehicles in this table would be capable of launching individual small satellites as well as secondary payloads. The Super Strypi (SPARK), for example, can be configured to carry one or two small satellites as well as multiple CubeSats using the NASA Ames Payload Adapter and Deployer (PAD). The precise number of CubeSats depends upon their size and the number of small satellites carried on the mission.
Rideshare arrangements help to spread out costs among different satellite producers. However, they limit flexibility on launch dates because of the need to complete and integrate all the payloads. There are also limitations on specific orbits that can be reached. If the primary payload is going one place, the secondary ones are going there, too.
Even with that limitation, rideshare arrangements on the small launch vehicles shown above are likely to be more frequent, less complicated and much less costly than the larger rockets they ride on now. That could really open up the market for nano- and micro-satellites as secondary payloads on these launches.
Dedicated launch vehicles aimed at putting individual satellites into orbit will offer far more flexibility, albeit with greatly reduced payloads. With the Lynx and GoLauncher 2, for example, the timing issue would shift largely to when an individual satellite is ready for integration with the rocket. These vehicles also offer the opportunity to place a satellite into a very precise orbit almost on demand. The impact of have that type of service could really make this segment of the satellite market boom.
These smaller launch vehicles will have the same chicken-or-the-egg question that all new launch vehicles face. If you build the rockets, will there be enough payloads to support a thriving market? Or does one have to wait for the payload demand to increase?
My guess is if the rockets prove to be affordable, reliable and can be launched frequently, then the number of payloads are likely to increase significantly enough to support a thriving market. Especially given the increased sophistication of very small satellites and the reduced cost and size of their components.