Why private companies are racing to build small rockets

Science Friday
A CubeSat in hand

There's a new space race underway, but this competition isn’t quite on the scale of the one that took place between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

This time, NASA isn’t even a key player. 

Instead, today’s space race is taking place among private companies vying to build tiny rockets.

Why the rush to deliver a smaller rocket? Tim Fernholz, a reporter for the website Quartz, says the satellite technology that depends on rockets to reach low Earth orbit is getting smaller — and more popular — all the time.

“What used to be a 500-pound or 1-ton satellite is now maybe 100 pounds,” Fernholz says. “As people are seeing what these small satellites can do, they’re getting ideas about what they can do in orbit.”

Modern satellite technology helps us navigate, communicate and track crime, among other boons. But one of the biggest obstacles to satellite-based business is the hassle of putting satellites into orbit. Fernholz notes it can cost tens of thousands of dollars per pound to launch an object into space. So Silicon Valley investors are suddenly paying attention to innovations in lightweight, reliable space transportation. And private companies like Vector Space, Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic are kicking small rocket development into high gear.

“The Vector Space rocket or the Virgin Galactic rocket, those are going to be 40 feet, 60 feet long,” Fernholz says. “But when you think about [how] a SpaceX rocket is 14 stories tall, or the new SLS rocket that NASA is building to send people to the moon is even bigger than that? These are small for rockets.”

The field looks so profitable that even companies with large rockets are exploring the appeal of using their equipment to launch small satellites. Fernholz says that both SpaceX and United Launch Alliance are developing racks for their large rockets to carry numerous small satellites in a single mission — think “ride sharing” for space.

But just like on Earth, splitting a ride into orbit on someone else’s timeline seems somehow less appealing than taking a private, on-demand rocket.

“These big guys are based around an economic model of putting really huge, heavy satellites very high up in the air. And so this new business model of having a lot of tiny satellites pretty low in space just doesn’t jive, and [the small satellites] end up tagging along on these missions up to space,” Fernholz says. “They don't get to pick how they launch. … They also have to wait 14 months, 18 months to get up into space, which if you're a Silicon Valley person and you want to iterate, and you want to break things and fail fast, 18 months is an eternity.”

Especially because over the next few years, private companies are preparing to more than double the number of active satellites in low Earth orbit. Fernholz says that in addition to the 1,300 active satellites currently in orbit, OneWeb and SpaceX’s satellite division want to provide global broadband internet by launching 700 satellites each.

It's getting crowded out there, Fernholz says.

“It’s going to be an issue of coordination and planning and getting everybody in the right spot,” Fernholz says. “There’s still a lot of room, but people are worried about space debris right now. There are little broken chunks of dead satellites, and screws from the International Space Station flying around.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.

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