Saturday, November 13, 2010

Micro-Cargo Delivery & The Last Mile Problem

Orbital Tech's Space Station Concept
With the NLV Challenge Seminar last weekend in Menlo Park, I have (again) been thinking about NanoSat Launcher markets.

First a quick refresher: a NanoSat Launch Vehicle (NLV) is an orbital launcher dedicated to very small payloads (~1-50kg). Currently there is no dedicated launch vehicle for such payloads. Interested customers are forced to seek out secondary payload status on larger launch vehicles. Secondary payloads are launched WHEN the primary payload dictates and WHERE (in the orbit that) the primary payload dictates.

In my estimation, two features of a commercial NLV system will disproportionately drive market demand. A successful commercial NanoSat Launch Vehicle service must be able to:
  1. Launch with limited lead time (fast integration combined with frequent launch opportunities) and
  2. Launch at low cost. I've heard price points between $500K to $1M per flight. At these price points, universities could bundle 12-24 CubeSats into a single payload and launch multiple times during a student’s college career (current wait time for a CubeSat launch can be 5-7 years).
Now, let's talk markets: I believe the demand for an NLV will be divided into two major categories:

I believe micro-cargo delivery to orbiting stations will be the larger of the two markets. I admit, with no current demonstrated market, this assertion is a bit speculative, but here is my simple logic. Developing a complex system like a satellite can take months or years, emergency needs/wants can develop in seconds. For example, how do you get an emergency supply of insulin to a visiting astronaut on a Bigelow Aerospace or Orbital Technologies space station?  Not on a Dragon resupply mission which won't lauch for another month. 

Bigelow announced on Oct 7, 2010, his company's need for 24 flights per year to his stations starting in the year, 2017. But those flights will be planned months (years?) in advance. What happens when the stations need short-term "emergency" items: a wrench, a computer chip, fresh apples?

What opportunities for luxury, science, convenience, or commerce does such a micro-cargo service open up for those on station? This is where the NLV could really augment the larger deliveries from SpaceX, Boeing, and Orbital. With an NLV, station operators can have both large, regularly scheduled deliveries as well as more frequent micro-cargo deliveries working together to service their needs.

But once in LEO, how does the NLV actually deliver the payload to the station itself? We have a "last mile" problem. The ISS, Bigelow, or Orbital Technologies are going to require that vehicles approaching their stations do not damage them. But on-board rendezvous and docking technologies may be too massive for a NanoSat Launcher to include on board (not to mention expensive/time-consuming for the entrepreneur to develop).

In addition, it is unclear to me that orbiting stations are set up to handle the volume of deliveries an NLV service could theoretically provide. An NLV may be able to provide daily "milk runs" to an orbiting station, but could the station handle that much throughput at their airlocks? A last mile solution is required for micro-cargo delivery to truly become the "killer app" for NLV's that I believe it could be.

A Last Mile Solution would:
  • Eliminate/minimize on-board NLV rendezvous and docking hardware
  • Facilitate the increased opps tempo of frequent station deliveries
  • Ensure the safety of delivered payload
  • Ensure the safety of the orbital station itself
The company that solves this last mile problem for delivering micro-cargo to orbital destinations will significantly enhance the attractiveness of any NanoSat Launcher in operation. And if one company vertically integrates the last mile solution with a company-created NLV, such a combination could serve as a significant barrier to entry for other NLV competitors unable to offer such a comprehensive solution.

We need entrepreneurs to solve the last mile problem for micro-cargo delivery to orbital destinations.  There's profit in it for you if you do.


  1. have you heard of the MMU, or the CanadaArm?
    The Manned Manuvering Unit is an existing small space tug. Problem solved. If you don't want to take off your bunny slippers and leave the station, you just need to manuver closer than 50 feet to the station and the CanadaArm can retrieve the payload.ESA has demonstrated autonomous docking. You should be able to adapt that technology to hold station within a few meters of the target. Then it would be up to the station personel to figure out how to retrieve the package.

  2. Lindsey:

    Great comments. I agree many of your ideas may be apart of a/the solution to the last mile problem. Robotic arms like the ISS’s CanadaArm may be very helpful. Enhanced rendezvous and docking technologies will surely help as well. We see these solutions at work on the ISS now and in the near future as SpaceX and Orbital start to deliver cargo to the ISS. Part of what the COTS suppliers need to do to fulfill their contracts with NASA is prove they can safely approach the station reliably.

    The challenge I see for micro-cargo (1-50kg) deliveries from a NanoSat Launcher is that in order for the NLV to carry the necessary onboard rendezvous and docking technologies to ensure a safe delivery, NLV’s severely reduce or eliminate the payload delivered. I am fearful that until the last mile problem for micro-delivery is solved, NLV payloads will not be able to deliver to orbital stations.

    Keep the ideas coming.


  3. hi Colin, great article!

    I'm not too sure about $500k - $1 million price points. Any papers/sources on this? After how many launches will this price tag be vaild?

    About the CubeSat market:

    A paper from NanoLauncher (partnership between Spaceworks Commercial and IHI Aerospace) aims to put 20 kg into LEO via an air-launch system. It uses legacy solid motors from Japanese sounding rockets, plus miniaturized avionics. Pretty ambitious venture!

    Assuming they come in at around $40k per kg, which is the current market price of a CubeSat launch, that's $800k in revenue per launch ( plus a host of inventory issues : e.g. where are we going to get 20 universities to launch at the same time?). A few launches and the entire CubeSat market will be dried up!

    Also, not many universities can afford the $40k price tag for a CubeSat. Research grants come in at around $10-20k, so operators like NanoLauncher are going to have to reduce the price tag to attract more universities to join. It'll seem hard to turn a profit per launch.

    Ultimately, we're interested in how fast (or after how many successful launches) can we get to this low price point ($500k to $1 million).

    Any insights?

  4. fugufish:

    I liked your questions so much I answered you through a new post.


  5. Colin;
    Like your article on NLV. I have worked with Jordi at Cal Poly and Mike Swartwout was a former student of mine.
    Consider a new micro-gravity service by This service provides a CubeSat size payload delivered and installed on the ISS for at least 30 days of micro-gravity.

    Like your comments.

    Bob Twiggs
    Morehead State University

  6. Bob:

    Thanks for your kind words. I am a fan of NanoRacks. I have had several discussions with Jeffrey Manber. They are definitely apart of the solution.

    Keep up the good work yourself at Kentucky Space as well!