NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) has awarded multiple Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) contracts to provide small satellites (SmallSats) — also called CubeSats, microsats or nanosatellites — access to low-Earth orbit.
The three companies selected to provide these new commercial launch capabilities, and the value of their firm fixed-price contracts, are:
- Firefly Space Systems Inc. of Cedar Park, Texas, $5.5 million
- Rocket Lab USA Inc. of Los Angeles, $6.9 million
- Virgin Galactic LLC of Long Beach, California, $4.7 million
At present, launch opportunities for small satellites and science missions mostly are limited to rideshare-type arrangements, flying only when space is available on NASA and other launches. The services acquired through these new contract awards will constitute the smallest class of launch services used by NASA.
“LSP is attempting to foster commercial launch services dedicated to transporting smaller payloads into orbit as an alternative to the rideshare approach and to promote the continued development of the U.S. commercial space transportation industry,” said Jim Norman, director of Launch Services at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “VCLS is intended to help open the door for future dedicated opportunities to launch CubeSats and other small satellites and science missions.”
Small satellites, including CubeSats, are playing an increasingly larger role in exploration, technology demonstration, scientific research and educational investigations at NASA. These miniature satellites provide a low-cost platform for NASA missions, including planetary space exploration; Earth observations; fundamental Earth and space science; and developing precursor science instruments like cutting-edge laser communications, satellite-to-satellite communications and autonomous movement capabilities.
LSP supports the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) by providing launch opportunities for more than 50 CubeSats that are awaiting launch during the next three years. The VCLS contracts will demonstrate a dedicated launch capability for smaller payloads that NASA anticipates it will require on a recurring basis for future science SmallSat and CubeSat missions.
Small satellites already are used to provide imagery collection for monitoring, analysis and disaster response. In the future, CubeSat capabilities could include ship and aircraft tracking, improved weather prediction, and the provision of broader Internet coverage.
The Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington has partnered with LSP to fund the VCLS contracts. These VCLS launches of small satellites are able to tolerate a higher level of risk than larger missions and will demonstrate, and help mitigate risks associated with, the use of small launch vehicles providing dedicated access to space for future small spacecraft and missions.
“Emerging small launch vehicles have great potential to expand the use of small satellites as integral components of NASA’s Earth science orbital portfolio,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division. “Today’s CubeSat technology fosters hands-on engineering and flight research training; with the addition of reliable, affordable, and dedicated access to space on small launchers, constellations of SmallSats and CubeSats could revolutionize our science-based spaceborne Earth-observing systems and capabilities. We’re eager to work with the VCLS providers as they develop new launch capabilities for the Earth science community.”