By Curt Blake, President of Spaceflight
(Portions of this post first appeared in SatMagazine, April 2016 issue)
Spaceflight works with launch vehicle providers across the planet, offering capabilities to launch cubesats, microsats and telecommunications satellites, and everything in between.
Our customers can choose to hitch a ride on a launch to popular destinations such as sun-synchronous and geosynchronous transfer orbits, or as we announced recently, secure a launch on one of our dedicated rideshare missions.
But what exactly is a dedicated rideshare mission? Below is background on how we got here, how it actually works, and why it matters.
How It Started
For 99 percent of the organizations seeking access to space, price is an issue. And as spacecraft size, and consequently, cost of launch increases, having some say on launch timing becomes more important. Being able to offer both routine access and an affordable price point is critical in making space accessible for more organizations.
About two years ago, we saw an increase in demand from prospective large satellite rideshare customers. They wanted us to get them into space, but with so much on the line, they were unwilling to risk losing their launch payments if their satellite was not ready on launch day.
They told us they were willing to pay a premium for this “first class” level of customer service and increased control, but not to the extent of assuming the overhead or responsibility of buying their own rocket. Rather, they wanted to realize the significant savings that results from including rideshare customers on their launch, married to the schedule control of being the lead, or co-lead, on the mission.
It seemed like a perfect opportunity to offer a new variation of rideshare as an alternative — dedicated rideshare.
What It Is
Dedicated rideshare is a new launch alternative that lowers launch prices for organizations seeking access to space, maximizes utilization of the launch vehicle, and apportions cost based on schedule control and other service features.
Lead customers pay for schedule control and other accoutrements of a traditional “primary” customer, but see their price reduced by including rideshare customers on the launch. Likewise, the traditional rideshare customers pay less because our lead customers pay a disproportionate amount of the entire launch vehicle cost in order to retain schedule control.
How It Works
At a high level, here’s how the process works:
- Gather Information. The process starts with a customer request for a certain schedule for a particular payload size. We try to respond to client queries within 24 hours to let them know we are working on their request. They can fill out a form on our website giving us the information we need to start this process. If they call, we collect the data and usually provide them with launch options within a week.
- Play Matchmaker. From there, it’s really a matchmaking exercise. If the customer is a lead or co-lead candidate, we review our database for others who have expressed a desire to reach a similar orbit within the same time frame.
- Identify Available Missions. For non-lead rideshare customers, we review our available missions, dedicated rideshare or not, in addition to other missions we know are out there. We then filter for what launch vehicles are available to an individual customer and evaluate their options.
- Secure Lead Customer. Once there is customer commitment for a dedicated rideshare, Spaceflight purchases an entire launch vehicle, offering the customer cost-effective rideshare pricing blended with first-class service and control.
- Sell to Capacity. We then work to “fill up” the additional rideshare capacity with other small satellites.
- Payload Delivery. We deliver the integrated payload stack, with the spacecraft attached, to the launch site.
- Quality Control. Once at the launch site we perform a series of tests on the integrated payload stack to be sure it will operate correctly. We also conduct tests to be sure the spacecraft are operating normally. Then the launch service provider integrates the stack to the launch vehicle.
As an example, SpaceIL, the Israeli Google X Prize contestant, came to us with a desire to have schedule control over a mission to the moon. As a non-profit customer, they were very cost conscious. They needed to reserve as much money as possible to plan and execute a moon-landing mission, and they required some limited flexibility to delay the launch if they fell behind schedule.
With the dedicated rideshare option, we were able to offer them an affordable launch that met their financial and schedule control needs. Once their contract was in place, Spaceflight purchased our first SpaceX Falcon 9 which is to be launched in the second half of 2017. The mission will fly more than 20 satellites from six different countries to sun-synchronous orbits on a mission called “2017 Sun Synch Express,” with SpaceIL and another organization serving as “co-leads” of the overall launch.
Why It Matters
Until now rideshare customers had no other option but to wait until excess capacity became available on a launch scheduled by a primary payload. With dedicated rideshare, we incent primary, or lead, customers to synch to our launch schedule by offering them significant savings.
Dedicated rideshare missions enable customers with spacecraft that range in mass from five to 2500 kg to create long-range mission plans to sun-synch and GTO with more dependable launch dates.
The notion of having a reliable, annual ride to a sun-synch orbit is really compelling to our customers. Anytime we can offer more options around schedule control, pricing, and increased frequency in access to space, it’s a win for everyone involved in the launch, and the industry as a whole.
- The commercial and non-commercial smallsat operators benefit from the certainty of set launch schedules not previously available to rideshare customers
- U.S. government customers benefit from predictable, available U.S. launches
- Launch vehicle manufacturers benefit from increased demand
As the leading spaceliner in the industry, Spaceflight is focused on seamlessly coordinating all aspects of the launch for our customers – regardless if we’re filling the manifest of scheduled launch missions or creating new dedicated launch schedules.
Beyond the integration services and tactical aspects of a launch, one of our biggest differentiators is our attention to full-service mission management. We oversee the entire launch process, taking the guesswork out of the experience for our customers.
This is not for the faint of heart! We work really hard to be sure that when the customer signs, they know what the launch process will be like. For instance, what deliverables will need be provided and when, the important milestones, when their licenses are expected to be complete, when the spacecraft is to be delivered, and more. We take care of everything from systems integration to spacecraft deployment, including guidance on trickier aspects, such as International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), Interface Control Document development and government licensing.
It’s a long-winded way of saying customers don’t have to be launch experts — that’s our job. We aim to eliminate any surprises and allow our customers to focus on their satellites and business. This level of service helps us to maintain long-standing relationships with our customers.
Where Is This Heading?
I believe dedicated rideshare will become routine because of the increasing demand for small satellite operators to have affordable, dependable launch service options that provide consistent and frequent access to space.
By extending this model to mid-size and large satellites, giving them more schedule control and service absent the enormous cost of buying a private launch vehicle, dedicated rideshare becomes a very compelling service.
While dedicated rideshare missions currently only serve the sun-synchronous low Earth orbit and GTO launch markets, we will offer different orbits as new vehicles come online and customer demand increases.
Definitely watch this space!