SPACE NEWS: Reusability On The Horizon For Small Satellite Launch Providers

dWeb.News Article from Daniel Webster dWeb.News

dWeb.News Article from Daniel Webster dWeb.News

During October 2021’s Small Payload Ride Share Association Symposium, a collection of small satellite launch providers gave updates on current and future projects. The providers include those who are preparing for their first flight, others who are in the middle or final stages of their test flight program, as well as those that have delivered operational payloads. The common thread was to focus on future evolutions of small satellite launch systems and reusability.

Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab was the first to deliver customer payloads to orbit. Starting with the first successful Electron launch in January 2018, Rocket Lab has successfully completed 18 missions to orbit, including returning to flight after two launch failures in July 2020 and May 2021.

Factors such as standing down to investigate these failures, COVID-19 pandemic effects in New Zealand, and delays in AFSS certification by NASA have prevented Rocket Lab from ramping up launch cadence. Rocket Lab’s Autonomous Flight Safety System, also known as an Autonomous Flight Termination System or (AFTS) has been flying on Electron rockets from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. However, it must be certified by NASA in order to operate on launches from Launch Complex 2 at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

“The Owl’s Night Begins” launches in December 2020 – via Rocket Lab

The hardware component of the system, the Autonomous Flight Termination Unit (AFTU) which actually destroys a vehicle that is flying off course, has completed development. NASA and Rocket Lab are currently working together on the software component. This must be certified to fly from Wallops in Virginia. Wallops is a more densely populated area than Rocket Lab’s New Zealand range.

The Senior Vice President for Global Launch Services, Lars Hoffman, says that Rocket Lab expects NASA to certify the software component by the end of 2021. Rocket Lab is also talking to other small satellite launch companies about the possibility of selling the AFSS to be used on other vehicles.

Electron is scheduled to make its next flight no earlier than November 11, a mission named “Love At First Insight” which will carry a pair of Gen-2 satellites for BlackSky. This will be followed by “A Data With Destiny” no earlier than November 27 with another pair of Gen-2 spacecraft.

Both of these missions will launch at LC-1 in New Zealand. Rocket Lab has yet to announce when a mission will use the second pad at Mahia (LC-1B), rather than the LC-1A pad that has been home to every Electron launch.

Electron has been developed to be a partially-reusable rocket. Two soft splashdowns have already been achieved under parachute. For mid-air capture, future recoveries will use a helicopter.

Rocket Lab has been developing a larger launch vehicle to deploy small satellite constellations. This vehicle, named Neutron, will feature a reusable first stage recovered via propulsive landing.

Launch Complex 1, including pads 1A (top) and 1B (right) in Mahia, New Zealand – via Rocket Lab

Hoffman says that Rocket Lab has looked at partnering with other propulsion developers for this new rocket, and believes that Rocket Lab has found “a solution that is a perfect fit for us.” The majority of manufacturing for Neutron will occur in the United States, with some in New Zealand.

An announcement with additional details about the Neutron rocket will be made in the coming months. These details will help to clarify how reusable Neutron will actually be, since it is being investigated whether a “fully-reusable” rocket will be as efficient as the partial reuse concept.

Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit is the second and most recent small launch service provider to reach orbit. Similar to Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit fell short on their first launch attempt but found success on their second. Virgin’s LauncherOne rocket, which was launched by air, has been successful in two missions. Both of these missions were earlier this year.

The third LauncherOne mission, the STP-27VPB mission for the United States Space Force’s Space Test Program, is slated to occur in the coming weeks from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. While both of Virgin Orbit’s previous trips to orbit have achieved 60.7-degree inclinations, the next flight will target a 45-degree inclination using a drop location farther offshore.

LauncherOne’s first stage ignites on the successful Launch Demo 2 mission in January 2021 – via Virgin Orbit

Wade McElroy, the Chief of Staff at Virgin Orbit’s government contracting subsidiary VOX Space, said that future missions will continue to move the drop point even further from the coast.

Virgin Orbit plans to activate additional launch sites. They will start with Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, which will be used for future Space Test Program missions. While McElroy could not announce any firm plans for more carrier aircraft, Virgin Orbit’s current fleet of one, a Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl, is “a constraint.”

Reuse is being evaluated as a potential evolution for LauncherOne, with one potential design including a parachute recovery of the rocket’s first stage. A LauncherTwo, a highly evolved rocket that could include reusability, is also possible. These plans are still preliminary and there are no plans to make any recovery efforts.


Astra has conducted three orbital launch attempts but is still working on achieving orbit. The next attempt is scheduled for no earlier than October 27 from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska.

Rocket 3’s upper stage ignites on the way to orbit – via Mack Crawford for NSF/L2

Like both Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit, Astra is planning to expand operations to multiple launch sites, adding an unspecified second site later this year. The simple design of the rocket vehicle and supporting ground equipment allows for easy transport. All items are shipped to the launch site using standard shipping containers.

A point that is different from other small satellite launchers, is the possibility of reusability. Astra does not want to pursue this.

Instead, Astra wants to scale up the production of expendable satellite rockets to allow daily access to orbit. This is in addition to utilizing economies of scale to reduce launch costs. The launch vehicles can be made cheaply and fly without any additional complexity by adding recovery and reuse systems.

Firefly Aerospace

Firefly Aerospace is the most recent small satellite launch company to make a maiden flight. The Alpha rocket lifted off for the first time in September, suffering an engine shutdown 15 seconds after launch which resulted in the termination of the flight.

While the investigation into this failure is ongoing, co-founder Eric Salwan stated that no major design changes should be needed for the next flight. Except for the shutting down of the propellant valve, the rocket’s other systems performed well during the maiden flight.

The debris model for Alpha has been redrawn due to pieces of the rocket that fell downwind of populated areas. These concerns can be mitigated by a slight modification to the mission profile. Alpha’s second flight will feature another demonstration flight, with deployable educational payloads.

Firefly will continue to improve its manufacturing processes and enhance the vehicle’s performance once Alpha is in orbit. It takes approximately two to three months to make an Alpha rocket. Salwan says that a planned shift to automated layup will reduce this time to less then a week.

Alpha is expected to see its mass to orbit capability increase from 1,000 kilograms to 1,300 kilograms. Firefly’s mass-to-orbit performance will be further improved by a second larger launcher, Beta. Its height is now 6 feet (1. 83 meters) diameter to Beta’s 12-foot (3. 66 meters) diameter.

A slide shown by co-founder Eric Salwan at the 2021 Small Payload Ride Share Association Symposium – via Firefly Aerospace

Beta will also feature reusability, with the rocket’s first stage planned for recovery via vertical landing. Alpha could also be developed to include reusability in future.

ABL Space Systems

Still working toward an initial orbital launch attempt is ABL Space Systems and the RS-1 launch vehicle. After continued testing at Edwards Air Force Base, the Mojave Air Port and Space Port, the first flight is planned for later in 2015.

The launch will be from the Pacific Spaceport Complex, Alaska. Many launch sites are possible to host future missions due to the modular and transportable nature ABL’s rocket system, which is similar to Astra.

Also, ABL has not yet mentioned the possibility of reusability in their vehicles.


Relativity Space has also not yet made its first launch attempt, but the company has big plans and a strong customer manifest. The expendable Terran 1 rocket’s first flight is now scheduled for the first quarter of 2022 from SLC-16 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Recently, the environmental assessment of this launch site was completed.

A second Vandenberg Space Force Base launch site is also being planned.

A slide shown by mission manager Drew Hess at the 2021 Small Payload Ride Share Association Symposium – via Relativity Space

Qualification for the two Aeon engine variants which will power Terran 1 is underway. Relativity Space Mission Manager Drew Hess said that Aeon 1 engine qualification is 75% complete and that the Aeon Vacuum engine is ready to be shipped to NASA’s Stennis Space Center for qualification testing.

The second Terran 1 flight car is being 3D printed by Relativity in Long Beach, California. As the company’s first launch vehicle, Terran 1 will serve as risk reduction for the fully reusable Terran R, although current plans are for both vehicles to be operational simultaneously.

The Terran R will be powered by a reusable variant of the Aeon engine named Aeon R. Starting in 2023, the nine Aeon 1 engines on Terran 1’s first stage will be replaced by a single Aeon R engine.

Relativity is using small launch vehicles, similar to Rocket Lab and Firefly. This will allow for the introduction of reusable medium-lift vehicles. Astra, Virgin Orbit, and ABL seem to be focusing on small, expendable launches at the moment.

(Lead render via Mack Crawford for NSF/L2)

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