|Orbital Tech's Space Station Concept|
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:
- Launch with limited lead time (fast integration combined with frequent launch opportunities) and
- 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).
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
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.