Last November, a rocket built from a decommissioned U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile lifted off from Wallops Island, Va., carrying not nuclear warheads headed for the Soviet Union but rather 29 small satellites bound for orbit. Among them was the TJ3Sat built by students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in nearby Fairfax County.
The satellite is relatively rudimentary. It is not much bigger than a can of soup and weighs only a couple of pounds. Its main purpose is to convert students’ text messages into speech and broadcast them over amateur-radio bands — a demonstration project, much like the Soviet Sputnik, the world’s first orbital satellite, which broadcast beeps.
Thomas Jefferson is a selective, science-oriented school in a highly educated county, and the satellite project was largely funded by established space companies, which also provided technical know-how. Still, the students at TJ accomplished what 30 years ago would have required the resources of a major nation-state or a Fortune 500 company.
Until recently, orbital space was an exclusive club. The Soviet Union, now Russia, the United States, certain European nations, Japan and China were the only builders of large satellites, and they controlled the only rockets capable of putting serious payloads into orbit. Everyone else who wanted to send a package (or a person) whizzing around the planet had to deal with them.
But the club’s membership is expanding. In the past three years, Bolivia, Hungary, Belarus and Lithuania have placed their first satellites in orbit, as have dozens of obscure universities, scientific research institutions and start-up companies. TJ3Sat was the first high school-built satellite, but it will not be the last.
Spaceflight is enormously expensive, and the single most costly component of operating a satellite is getting it into orbit in the first place. The upfront financial costs of designing, building and testing a rocket run into the billions or even tens of billions of dollars. International Launch Services, a U.S. subsidiary of the Russian company that builds Proton rockets, charges around $100 million to launch a single large satellite. The highly reliable Ariane 5, sold by French company Arianespace and launched from French Guiana, will run you about $210 million per launch. The cheapest launch options cost around $5,000 per pound of payload.
It is a commonly held view in the space industry that once prices break $1,000 per pound, the market will grow exponentially, ushering in an orbital revolution. Twenty years ago that threshold was a fever dream, but one company is set to run up against it as soon as this year.
The result could be nothing less than the democratization of access to space — and a boon for the students, scientists, companies and governments that have grand plans for the final frontier.
The orbital revolution is being driven foremost by the fact that satellites are getting smaller, cheaper and ever more capable. The miniaturization of electronics has led to small satellites with big capabilities — called microsats, nanosats, picosats and the like. “A lot of the growth we’re seeing in small satellites is in the 10-kilogram range,” says Jeff Foust, a senior analyst with space analysis firm Futron. “A lot of developments out of universities can weigh as little as 1 kilogram.”
Space technology is finally catching up with the electronics revolution.
Because of the enormous costs of building and launching satellites, the space industry puts payloads through stringent testing to ensure they can withstand the forces of launch, the vacuum and radiation of space and limited Earth-based troubleshooting options. Nobody wants to explain why their multimillion-dollar satellite keeps rebooting. So, advances on Earth can take years to percolate into the heavens.
But now that more tech has proved space-worthy — several successful test satellites have been built from the guts of smartphones — institutions are free to use smaller off-the-shelf components. That makes satellites cheaper to build and their smaller size makes them cheaper to launch.
So inexpensive is the latest generation of small sats — starting around $30,000 in materials, by Mr. Foust’s estimate — that new funding options have become possible. A handful of crowd-funded satellites have been launched to monitor atmospheric conditions and a satellite to spot asteroids is on the way.
Launch costs do remain a stumbling block, but changes in the industry favor the proliferation of satellite capabilities. A big one is competition.
After decades of having rockets built to government standards for government roles, in 2006 NASA announced a public-private partnership called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services. The government needed to replace the Space Shuttle fleet, which would be retired in 2011 and was the only set of vehicles the United States had to fly cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. Rather than defining precise specifications for each part and contracting to build them, NASA allowed companies to come up with their own designs — and paid them as they passed various milestones.
The result was two brand-new launch vehicles produced by private-sector firms and backed by a mixture of government and corporate funds: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Orbital Sciences’ Antares, both of which have successfully launched custom-built capsules to deliver cargo to the space station.
The same public-private approach is being used to develop reusable spacecraft to ferry American astronauts to the space station, with SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada all competing for the job. (Currently, the astronauts ride up in Soyuz rocket capsules at a cost of $50 million per seat, payable to the Russian government.)
Competition is driving down costs and is heating up outside the United States as well. Notably, new medium-sized launch vehicles are available from Europe and Japan, and India has declared it will make its new heavy rocket, the GSLV, available for purchase, building on the commercial success of the smaller PSLV. China’s ambitiously large space program continues to offer its Long March rockets commercially, with new variants in the works. So it goes in France and Russia, even as countries such as Brazil and Indonesia enter the commercial market.
The use of satellites is ubiquitous in modern life, from GPS to radio. The result is a $300 billion industry, of which three-quarters is commercial. Nearly 1,100 active satellites are in orbit and that number is set to double by 2022, according to Euroconsult, a satellite-market consultancy, and the number will doubtless grow further as new programs take shape.
The boom in small-sat capabilities is already democratizing space, allowing increasing numbers of educators and scientists to take advantage of orbit. Small satellites launched in 2013 alone included a Canadian telescope to detect near-Earth objects like asteroids, a Peruvian sensor to gather data on Earth’s atmosphere for radio astronomers, a Russian sensor to take geomagnetic readings — the list goes on. These experiments simply wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago because of the prohibitive cost.
Cheaper space data will also generate entirely new categories of consumers. Farmers could order up soil-moisture measurements. Small shippers could receive traffic updates and road-closure information, which now are difficult to obtain outside metro areas. Inexpensive small sats could dramatically expand real-time monitoring — enormously useful for emergency responders fighting a forest fire or gauging the impact of an earthquake. Human rights organizations, through initiatives like the Satellite Sentinel Project, could chart violence in Sudan on a daily basis. News organizations could track a distant oil spill, obviating reliance on government and corporate sources.
And there are possibilities yet to be imagined. After all, personal computers and inexpensive cell phones not only opened new markets for old capabilities, but they also generated demand for entirely new products.
“If you give that technology out and make it more accessible, people start doing all sorts of things, many of which never take off, but which may end up being the next Google or Instagram,” points out Futron’s Mr. Foust.
However remarkable some of its accomplishments, space flight has been dominated by risk aversion for much of the last half-century. Space is a radically demanding and unforgiving environment, and the costs of venturing into it were so high and the consequences of failure were so great that few had the means or the interest. That is all about to change.
Zach Rosenberg is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. He wrote this for Foreign Policy.