Satellites: Who’s Who in the Launch business

3rd Aug 2020

Our planet is literally surrounded by satellites, and every year more and more devices appear in orbit. Of the 2,666 currently active satellites, about 700 were launched last year. And the number of launches is growing rapidly. 

At the same time, satellite size has changed dramatically over time. Today, the world has turned in the direction of small satellites, with a size of a small box and a weight range from 100 grams to several dozen kilograms. Launching such small devices does not call for large and expensive carriers. A small satellite launch vehicle with a payload capacity up to one tonne is quite enough. Here are some of the vehicles that will be used for future satellite launches: 

RocketLab Electron

Launcher Electron, by private aerospace company RocketLab, was commissioned in 2017 for commercial launches. It can deliver up to 150 kg of payload into sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) and up to 250 kg into low-earth orbit (LEO).

The key advantage of this carrier is its affordability, costing about 5-6 million dollars per launch. The carrier lifts off from RocketLab Launch Complex One, located on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. To date, Electron has carried out 13 launches,  and 10 of those were successful. The company has a second launch site in a spaceport of the Wallops flight center (Virginia, USA). However,  no launches have been carried out from this site yet.

Orbital Pegasus

Pegasus is another example of a small satellite launch vehicle. It belongs to the American corporation Northrop Grumman. Unlike Electron, it has a much longer track record, since it has been in use since 1990. The carrier with a maximum payload of 450 kg is designed for horizontal launches. The StarGazer aircraft lifts it into the air, and the rocket is released at an altitude of 12 km. 

Pegasus is most launched from the US Navy base Vandenberg or Cape Canaveral. Over 30 years of its existence, Pegasus has started 44 times and failed only 5 times. Besides, failures only occurred during its initial flights. Pegasus has not had a single malfunction or error since 1997. The big downside of Pegasus is its expensive launch cost of $56 million. For comparison, the launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 costs the same, but Elon Musk’s rocket can carry 45 times more cargo into LEO.

Asian light vehicles

Asian companies are trying to keep up with current trends and are doing great. Two top-class lightweight carriers were developed in China — Chang Zheng, and 11 in Kuaizhou. The first has been used since 2015, the second since 2013. While Kuaizhou can carry up to one tonne of payload into orbit, Chang Zheng is a smaller vehicle that can lift up to 700 kg of payload. Chang Zheng 11 carried out 11 launches, and all of them were a success. Kuaizhou’s lucky streak ran out at attempt number ten, though. July 10, 2020, it crashed during takeoff.

Japan, too, has its own lightweight vehicle. This is Epsilon, developed by the Japan Space Agency. It can deliver up to 1200 kg to LEO and up to 450 kg to SSO.

Lightweight launch vehicles promising projects

Recently, many private aerospace companies started developing light launch vehicles.  

The most promising developments, scheduled for their first commercial flights in 2020-2021, include:

CompanyCarrierLaunch typeLEOSSOCountry
Virgin OrbitLauncher Onehorizontala little over 500 kgup to 300 kgUSA
OrbexPrimeverticalup to 150 kgup to  150 kgUK
Firefly AerospaceFirefly αverticalup to 1 tonup to  600 kgUSA + Ukraine
SkyroraSkyrora XLverticalup to 315 kgup to 315 kgUK

Each project tries to develop the most affordable and the most environmentally-friendly solutions, hoping to occupy a niche in the small satellite launch market. We’ll have to wait and see which small satellite launch vehicle proves to be the most successful.

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