THE SMALL SATELLITE REVOLUTION
Launching to Space Faster and More Efficiently with SmallSat Standards
The ability to swap satellites into predefined launch configurations will provide more launch options and faster access to space.
For developers of mid-sized small satellites, the biggest hurdle is not building the satellite but launching these devices into space. A small satellite developer typically designs a customized satellite solution, then figures out a launch that meets their requirements. Once the launch is determined, the solution may be expensive, complicated, and inflexible.
Since each solution is mission-specific, the mid-sized SmallSat cannot simply be swapped out onto another ride if something goes wrong or if another opportunity arises. The development of a standard Launch Unit, or LaunchU, for mid-sized SmallSats-will enable the spacecraft to launch vehicle interface to be predefined, making the process quicker and more efficient.
LaunchU is an industry-wide effort to develop a SmallSat standard to improve launch options. The ability to swap satellites into predefined launch configurations will provide more launch options and faster access to space. As an independent, unbiased participant, Aerospace is in a unique position to guide this conversation.
We spoke with Carrie O’Quinn from the xLab Office of Product Management about how LaunchU could change access to launch for the small satellite industry.
What’s the inspiration behind LaunchU?
The inspiration behind LaunchU is twofold. First, we looked at how the invention of standardized, intermodal shipping containers revolutionized how items are shipped around the world. By using containerization, the ship or train carrying the items did not have to account for the contents being shipped, only that the container met certain requirements. This helped inform some of the discussion around volume standardization.
Additionally, many of the consortium members had experience launching CubeSats and had seen, on more than one occasion, the ability to swap out CubeSats within weeks of launch. The second inspiration came from looking at the CubeSat Design Specification and the specification’s enablers that allow for late satellite swapping.
How did the idea for a common launch standard come about?
As more companies are getting into space with SmallSats, satellites with a mass of less than 500 kg), we’re seeing an increased demand for launch services. This is evident by the larger number of launches each year and the emergence of new launch vehicle companies like Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, and Virgin Orbit.
In the summer of 2017, The Aerospace Corporation held a hack session with individuals from industry to tackle some of the hard problems in the spaceflight industry. One of the questions posed was, “why can’t a satellite get a slot and launch tomorrow?” While there are many factors that affect the ability to just buy a launch slot, one of the more solvable technical issues is the satellite-to-launch vehicle integration.
What are you hoping to achieve with LaunchU?
The consortium believes there are many benefits to having a standard SmallSat size and interface to the launch vehicle. Satellite manufacturers can build to the standard without having a defined launch. Launch vehicle manufacturers can design launches based on a known standard satellite, without knowing exactly who is going to be in that slot.
It would enable a “launch on schedule” for certain satellites because they could swap to a launch vehicle when it’s ready. Conversely, a launch vehicle can remain on-schedule if the original satellite isn’t available. It reduces the number of specialized interface analyses for each launch, leading to lower launch costs and increased access to space.
Who else is supporting this effort? How did you get these entities to sign on?
Our Aerospace team took this idea to a group of individuals attending the 2017 SmallSat conference in Logan, Utah. These individuals represented all aspects of small satellite launch-academia, government, satellite and launch vehicle manufacturers, launch integrators-to see if the community felt this was a worthwhile endeavor. It received overwhelming support.
We formed a consortium to develop the standard with representatives from government, academia, and seven different commercial companies along. The team met monthly and was also divided into subgroups to tackle more specific aspects of the standard like mass vs volume and launch loads. In less than 8 months, the consortium developed recommendations for the LaunchU standard and presented them at the 2018 SmallSat conference in Logan, Utah.
Are there any other groups working on something similar?
The Small Payload Ride Share Association (SPRSA) has developed an initial Multi-Manifest Design Specification (MMDS) for the US Space Force, intended for satellites larger than those covered by the LaunchU standard. This specification could be adopted commercially to achieve similar gains as the LaunchU standard.
Additionally, Arianespace has a Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS) standardizing small satellites for easy swap between launch vehicles. The LaunchU standard is a subset of the SSMS Micro Spacecraft category, so if you meet the LaunchU standard, you’ll also fit into the SSMS Micro Spacecraft category. Both efforts are complementary to the LaunchU standard.
What will an ISO standard mean for LaunchU? How far along are you in the process?
The process for developing an ISO standard is quite rigorous, involving members of the space community from around the world. By developing the LaunchU standard into an ISO standard, we will receive input from all countries that participate in ISO standard development.
It’s imperative to have global input as the goal of the LaunchU standard is to improve access to space around the world, not just the U.S., but it can take up to three years to complete from submission of the initial proposal. Developing a LaunchU ISO standard will make it truly international.
We’ve already completed a significant amount of upfront work so we’re hoping to shorten the timeline. As the United States is the entity submitting the proposal, there are some additional requirements. The proposal has been approved by the US technical advisory group for space systems and operations, and the request to add to the space systems and operations subcommittee has been submitted. It will be circulated among representatives from other countries for comments and feedback before a formal standard is completed.
Carrie O’Quinn is a senior project engineer in the Research and Development Department at The Aerospace Corporation. She is responsible for providing direct technical support to the National Security Space Research and Development customer on a CubeSat experiment program which discovers, researches, builds, and flies new and emerging space technologies on a series of annually launched CubeSats. She also manages the Aerospace technical resources to assist in the development of advanced space technologies.