Saturday, April 17, 2010

Orbital Secondary Payloads

A couple months ago, I wrote a post about the need for agents that could coordinate suborbital research missions – freeing developer/operators to focus on…well, developing and operating. It is exciting to see Andrews Space moving in this direction (same agent concept – orbital focus).

Utilizing’s Space X’s Falcon vehicles and Dragon capsule, Andrews is focused on secondary payloads.

- Small spacecraft launch
- Hardware qualification
- Biotechnology research
- Earth observation and monitoring

It will be interesting to watch this development.  Will we see larger launchers and capabilites be packaged and sold into small pieces like Andrews is planning or will we see the development of smaller and smaller launchers capable of dedicated launches for these smaller payloads?  There are definitely pros/cons to each approach.


  1. This idea grows on me. The secondary payloads market looks very appealing because it allows small payloads in space for a fraction of the cost of the main payload (in a lot of cases, the marginal cost of an extra piece of hardware is just some integration costs and the risk it adds to the main payload) and it's something that is likely to continue for as long as we need ballast shipped with our cargo to space (which probably means it'll never go away).

    Has anyone done a study on current secondary payload activity? I'm now curious as to the size of the current market and who's supporting it.

  2. Karl:

    To date, the challenge is launch availability (note it is not the $100K plus, universities current pay for a launch). I know at Vandenberg, they are interested in proving their launchers can handle the addition of Cubesat “P-Pods” (as an example of secondary payloads). Each launcher has to verify it can handle the P-Pods. So far, all can, but this qualification takes time and money (Govt estimates I have seen = $1M per launcher family: e.g. Atlas, Delta, Falcon, etc.).

    A few months ago I interviewed several leading Aerospace professors (MIT, Cal-Poly, St. Louis U.). They told me their wait was on average five to seven years for a ride. Although, the Europeans are planning nine cubesats on their first flight of the Vega launch vehicle at the end of 2010 or beginning of 2011. When polled, these professors thought there was a sustained interest in 50-125 cubesats per year if they could get the price down below $75K per launch.

    This type of secondary payload will continue. What is exciting is the potential for enough of these smaller payloads combined to fill a Falcon 1e or a Dragon Capsule. If a Falcon 1e could take 670KG to LEO and could deploy 200 cubsats over the course of a few orbits, that would mean universities could launch annually for a price of $45K per cubesat (with payload capacity left over!). If a Dragon capsule could take 6,000KG to LEO for a 6-8 weeks, corporate clients could start returning freeze-dried protein crystals and other experiments for $10.5K per KG.

    SpaceX has already said publically they don’t want to gather and integrate 200 cubesats. SpaceX doesn’t want to talk to a customer about “price per KG” to fill Dragons. But SpaceX has said they would be happy to work with the Agent that is working with those universities and corporate clients.