Expect the Unexpected: Plan for Maximum Launch Options for your Smallsat Missions

At Spaceflight, getting our customers to space in a safe, timely manner is always our priority. We work with the vast majority of launch vehicles and can help you choose the right launch for your smallsat — based on cost, schedule, destination orbit, regulatory hurdles, and reliability. Being launch vehicle agnostic also enables us to de-manifest and re-manifest payloads in a short time frame.

While delays, accidents, and launch failures are an unfortunate part of today’s launch market conditions, early design decisions can also limit your options as circumstances change. The following are a few insights to help those early in their planning stages achieve maximum launch flexibility.

Set Expectations

First, for rideshare smallsat customers, it is essential to set expectations that all mission campaigns will see challenges; it’s rarely an absolutely seamless process. To enable a successful mission, planning for multiple scenarios will help you launch successfully on budget and on schedule.

Design for Multiple Launch Vehicle Compatibility

Consider multiple launch opportunities prior to selecting a preferred launch. This typically consists of the tried-and-true launch vehicles — the PSLV, Soyuz, Falcon 9, and Atlas V, along with the emerging small launchers Electron and Launcher One. Your spacecraft should be compatible with the existing rideshare adapters and fit, without custom engineering, within the different sized fairings of multiple launch vehicles.

Additionally, it’s recommended you plan for a worst case 60-day timeline for integration at the launch site, as well as minimal battery recharging and no launch vehicle umbilical. Cubesat customers should design their spacecraft to be compatible with multiple deployers and microsat customers should design for a spacecraft mechanical interface that ensures compatibility across multiple launch vehicles.


Build a Robust Spacecraft

This might seem like a no-brainer, but by working with Spaceflight up front, we can obtain the appropriate clearances and authorizations to share multiple launch vehicle environments. You should plan for your spacecraft to be compatible with the launch environments of at least three different launch vehicles.

Understand Regulatory and Licensing Hurdles

Because this is an area of expertise for us, we can help you make choices early on that will give you maximum flexibility. For example, choose your propellant carefully in the design phase. Did you know using a green propellant will increase the number of rideshare opportunities and reduce integration overhead costs (not all launch providers provide fueling within the launch price free of charge)? For customers with U.S. content on their spacecraft, we can help you gain a clear understanding of what regulations govern import and export of hardware and data, as well as which impact your ability to obtain the proper licenses to launch on multiple launch vehicles.  

Think about Cash Flow

Whether the mission is civil, defense, or commercial in nature, managing cash flow is critical. It’s common for launches to be delayed, with many launches with rideshare customers being delayed anywhere between three months to one year. You’ll need a contingency plan for your spacecraft development schedule, as well as a buffer on when the satellite will be on orbit, operational, and producing revenue. You should identify key risk areas and milestones early on and develop mitigation strategies — just in case.

Have Contractual Plans for Multiple Launch Options or Changes

We strive to operate like an airline by employing different classes of services on our Dedicated Rideshare missions. You can fly our equivalent of First Class (Co-Lead), Business Class (Flex), or Economy. Contractual terms for each class vary with regard to termination, refunds, de-manifesting, and re-manifesting. You can also achieve frequent flier status with Spaceflight which comes with additional benefits. Just as you can buy a premium airline ticket for maximum flexibility, you can do the same for your launch with us.

Our goal is to launch customers on time, see them reach success, and have them return as repeat customers. If possible, we will build timelines and terms to allow customers to move between the same launch family (one PSLV to another), or from one launch vehicle to another (Atlas V to Soyuz). Just as there is a fee to move to a different flight on an airline, we employ a change fee depending on satellite size, contract price, and time table. Moving from one rocket to a distinctly different type of rocket is also possible with additional costs. Similar to buying a airline ticket, buying early will get you a better price and better terms.


Final thoughts

Our best advice: Have a diversified launch strategy across multiple rockets. Primary satellites are known to delay, export/import laws are known to change, and launch ranges sometimes go down for maintenance. Every launch vehicle is different with varying levels of reliability, customer backlogs, and price. The lowest cost option can often bring headaches such as delays, regulatory challenges, and a poor customer experience, all of which can drive up overall mission costs.

By designing, building, and planning a spacecraft mission for compatibility across multiple launch vehicles, the mission will be better protected from uncertainties in launch market conditions and you’ll have a better outcome.

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