An artist’s concept of Spaceflight Industries’ Sherpa tug EELV Secondary Payload Adapter. (Photo courtesy Spaceflight Industries.)


Improving Access to Space through Satellite Standards

For developers of mid-sized smallsats, the biggest hurdle is not creating the satellite itself but launching these devices into space. Launch is expensive, so compact satellites often need to hitch a ride on a larger payload that could be sponsored by any combination of government, civil, and commercial entities. This requires an extensive time commitment for both negotiation of the placement and resolving any integration issues with the larger payload.

Ridesharing on a payload adapter that can accommodate multiple satellites on a centralized ring has helped to make better use of cargo space on launch vehicles. However, integration issues remain as each individual small payload has its own size and engineering requirements. Developing a standard Launch Unit, or Launch-U, for mid-sized smallsats—approximately the size between a toaster and a small refrigerator—will enable rideshares to be configured more quickly and efficiently, resulting in more launch opportunities at a lower cost.

Aerospace is driving the Launch-U conversation by assembling representatives from industry, academia, and government to set the mid-size smallsats standard.

The CubeSat Precedent

CubeSats are a standard 1U 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. The CubeSat definition standardized the launch interface, and defining intermediate smallsat classes with Launch-U could have a similar revolutionary impact on the space industry. The ability to swap satellites within predefined launch configurations will provide more launch opportunities with shorter integration times and eventually lower the cost to deliver these mid-sized payloads to orbit.

The Working Group

Developing an industry standard is never straightforward, as each stakeholder has needs and preferences based on their own proprietary technology. As the unbiased, federally funded research and development center for national security space, Aerospace has the unique perspective to guide this discussion. The working group includes representatives from leaders in ridesharing technology, payload integration, and commercial space launch such as Virgin Orbit, VOX Space, United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Tyvak, Cal Poly, Moog CSA Engineering, and Spaceflight Industries.