The Coming Revolution in Orbit

How space went from a superpowers-only club to a DIY playground.

Image: Illustration by 5W Infographics for FP; Background photo:  European Space Agency
Image: Illustration by 5W Infographics for FP; Background photo: European Space Agency

Last November, a rocket built from a decommissioned U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile lifted off from Wallops Island, Virginia, 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, as such things go. 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 some technical know-how. In other words, if any kids were going to launch a satellite, the students at TJ were precisely the ones you would expect to do it — and they had help. Still, they 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 and 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 actually putting a heavy payload 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 — countries not known for their technological prowess, let alone their space-faring experience — 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 certainly 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 well 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, according to industry clearinghouse Seradata. The highly reliable Ariane 5, sold by French company Arianespace and launched from French Guiana, will run you about $210 million per launch. All told, 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 FIRST AND FOREMOST BY THE fact that satellites are getting smaller, cheaper, and ever more capable. The miniaturization of electronics has led to new markets of small satellites with better capabilities — variously 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 Futron, a prominent space analysis firm. "A lot of developments out of universities can weigh as little as 1 kilogram, as opposed to the 100-kilogram microsatellites that constituted most of the small-satellite market a few years ago."

This shift is partly the result of space technology 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 been proved spaceworthy — several successful test satellites, in fact, have been built from the guts of smartphones — institutions are free to use ever-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 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. And though these cheaper satellites are less robust and have shorter life spans than their larger predecessors, they are also easier to replace: "The small satellites are more technically capable and less expensive," says Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of satellite and spacecraft builder Sierra Nevada Corp., "and as launch costs come down, it may be better to continually upgrade them than to build a large satellite that lasts 20 years but which can’t be upgraded and whose technology becomes increasingly obsolete soon after they launch."

Launch costs do remain a major stumbling block, but here, too, changes in the industry favor the proliferation of satellite capabilities.

Competition is emerging in the launch market, both in the United States and abroad. After decades of having rockets built to government standards for government roles, in 2006 NASA announced a new 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 (ISS). 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. "We wanted to do an experiment," explains Scott Pace, a George Washington University professor who was then an associate administrator at NASA. "It was somewhat unique for the space business, but not terribly unique in other areas like aviation or railroads. The government goes in and says, we’re going to help support development of a capability and then be a customer of that capability."

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 ISS. New rockets are rare enough, but the funding mechanism was a spaceflight first. The two companies have already contracted with the U.S. government for 20 resupply flights to the ISS, and more are likely. The same public-private approach is being used to develop reusable spacecraft to ferry American astronauts to the 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.)

What separates these new launch vehicles from earlier iterations is that they may prove commercially viable, irrespective of government contracts. For the advertised price of $56 million, far less than its nearest competitor, the Falcon 9 has garnered robust demand from the commercial sector, with eight launches to date and a backlog of around 35, many from telecommunications companies. And this year or next, SpaceX is supposed to conduct its first launch of the Falcon Heavy, which, if successful, would be capable of launching 53 metric tons, by far the most powerful rocket available on the market. SpaceX plans to charge $135 million for a launch, meaning it will nearly break the $1,000-per-pound threshold that experts believe may radically shift the industry. Even more exciting is that the company is on a quest for the holy grail of spaceflight: a fully reusable launch system that could reduce costs further because its propulsion system would not be destroyed in the process of reaching orbit.

Costs may also drop as launch firms make better use of existing capabilities. Building a new rocket or satellite is difficult, but then economies of scale kick in and drive down marginal costs. The most capable rocket flying today, United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy, is essentially three regular Delta IVs bolted together. And the U.S. government has agreed to buy the cores in bulk rather than individually. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is so inexpensive partly because it uses nine smaller rocket engines on the first stage instead of one big one. The Falcon Heavy will use three cores for a total of 27 such engines.

Competition is heating up outside the United States as well. Notably, new medium-sized launch vehicles are available from Europe and Japan (Vega and Epsilon, respectively), 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, which has launched several European government and commercial-imaging satellites. China, with an ambitiously large space program, continues to offer its Long March rockets commercially, with new variants in the works. Soon, the French will introduce an improved version of the Ariane 5 and its eventual replacement, the Ariane 6. Russia’s Proton will be replaced by the more capable Angara. Brazil and Indonesia, among others, have expressed serious interest in new launch sites and rockets, which would introduce yet more players to the market.


Watch: Orbital Science’s successful Nov. 2013 launch of a Minotaur 1 rocket

THE USE OF SATELLITES IS UBIQUITOUS IN MODERN LIFE, FROM GPS TO radio (yes, radio: If you listened to NPR this morning, chances are the signal from the recording station was bounced to the local affiliate off a satellite). The result is a $300 billion industry, of which three-quarters is commercial, though often the line between government and commercial is blurry, given the strategic import of capabilities like global positioning. According to a database curated by the Union of Concerned Scientists, nearly 1,100 active satellites are in orbit. That number is set to double by 2022, based on programs that have already been announced, according to Euroconsult, a major satellite-market consultancy, and the number will doubtless grow further as new programs take shape.

The boom in small-sat capabilities is already democratizing access to space, allowing increasing numbers of educators and scientists to take advantage of orbit. Small satellites that were 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.

Government interest in new satellites is intense as well: Russia, China, India, and Europe are all building and maintaining their own navigation constellations so that they won’t have to rely on GPS, which is run by the U.S. military. Several countries have launched Automatic Identification System satellites to track ships, for both national security and safety reasons. The Indian Navy launched its own dedicated satellite in 2013 that allows high-bandwidth, secure communications exceeding the range and data limits of its previous system. Even the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office and the Department of Defense, which have long had enormous, multibillion-dollar satellites, are taking advantage of the revolution in space access. Their need to gather and transmit data so outweighs even their significant capabilities that they have launched dozens of small sats to test and improve communications, early warning, and imaging.

Cheaper space data will also generate entirely new categories of consumers. Local agribusinesses (and even individual farmers) deciding what to plant could order up bespoke soil-moisture measurements. Small shippers could receive regular traffic updates and road-closure information, which are currently difficult to obtain reliably outside major metro areas. Inexpensive small sats could dramatically expand real-time monitoring capabilities — 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 as it happened, obviating reliance on government and corporate sources.

And there are possibilities that have 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. "It might just be a hobby or something that doesn’t turn out to work very well, but it might turn out to be a precursor to something people haven’t thought of yet," says Foust. "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."

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 Washington, D.C.-based journalist.