Aerospace Out to Launch Small Sats Better

How do you most efficiently launch small satellites?

To answer that question, Aerospace is leading a discussion with industry, academia, and government participants about setting a standard Launch Unit, or Launch-U, for satellites between the size of a toaster and a small refrigerator.

“With the Launch Unit standard we’ll be able to maximize the efficiency of the launch vehicle fairing and fill it up with more satellites and thereby increase access to space for everybody,” said Carrie O’Quinn, Aerospace’s lead on this effort.

The Problem

CubeSats are a standard size, which makes launching them rather simple. A launch vehicle can fit a certain number of CubeSats, and one CubeSat can be switched for another if there is a change in plans. In contrast, large satellites merit their own launch vehicle. But what about mid-sized small satellites, specifically those between the size of a 12U CubeSat and what is known as an ESPA-class small sat?

It turns out there are not standards for this class of satellites, which means each satellite generates its own launch integration requirements for each respective launch vehicle. This is simply not efficient and creates challenges for satellite developers and the launch community, and the situation will only be exacerbated as the number of small sats continues to grow.

The Solution

The Launch-U could address this problem. Just like the CubeSat definition standardized the launch interface, defining intermediate small-sat classes could have the same revolutionary impact on the industry. It would make better use of cargo space on launch vehicles and also provide more flexibility in regards to launch opportunities.

“With the Launch Unit standard, if your intended ride to space doesn’t work out, you could simply switch to another ride that day, similar to how you can load a shipping container onto one ship or another without any need for special interfaces,” said Andre Doumitt, a systems director in the Innovation Development group at Aerospace.

As it becomes possible to swap satellites into predefined launch configurations, more launch opportunities will become available for everyone.

“Similar to what happened in the shipping container world, if more satellite makers can get a ride when and where they want, demand will grow, which benefits all players in the satellite industry—launchers, satellite builders, government customers, and commercial end-users,” Doumitt said.

The Working Group

Coming up with a standard could potentially be tricky since each company has its own preferences. Aerospace, however, is in a unique position to guide this conversation as an unbiased, nonprofit, federally funded research and development center.

“We’re not defining a solution that’s specific to our launch vehicle, adaptor system, or satellites,” O’Quinn said. “We’re helping reach across the whole community to find out how each of them would best implement this practice, and as an independent corporation, we can do that without any bias for our own self-interest.”

The working group is meeting regularly and includes representatives from Virgin Orbit, VOX Space, United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Tyvak, Cal Poly, Moog CSA Engineering, and Spaceflight Industries.

“I’m excited that The Aerospace Corporation is working with new space companies on defining a ‘Launch Unit’ that will assist in the future growth of the small satellite market,” said Chad Foerster, Virgin Orbit’s manager of 2nd Stage Structures and Mechanisms.

He continues: “The synergy between The Aerospace Corporation’s extensive history of providing comprehensive engineering support and mission assurance activities for national launch, along with the innovative and disruptive ideas of new space entrants, will help change the paradigm of delivery of small satellites into space similar to how standardized shipping containers dramatically reduced the costs of transport and supported the post-war economic growth in the 1950’s.”

Launch-U in the News

Check out media coverage of Aerospace’s Launch-U concept:

—Laura Johnson