United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, said Thursday it will jump into the booming market for miniature satellites known as CubeSats, officials said.
By mid-2017, the venture plans to begin flying a specially made CubeSat carrier with berths for 24 spacecraft aboard its workhorse Atlas 5 rockets, chief executive Tory Bruno said during a webcast press event in Colorado.
SpaceWorks Enterprises, an Atlanta-based consultancy, estimates the global market for CubeSat launches will skyrocket, pushed largely by growing commercial interest and investment in cheap networks of small satellites for Earth imaging, weather forecasting, Internet relays and other services.
Companies developing small satellite networks include Google’s SkyBox Imaging, BlackSky Global, which is backed by Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital, Planet Labs, UrtheCast, PlanetiQ, GeoOptics and Spire Global.
Between 410 and 543 microsatellites, weighing up to 110 pounds (50 kg) will need launches globally in 2020, compared to 92 microsatellites launched in 2013, SpaceWorks noted in a 2014 market study.
The Lockheed-Boeing launch alliance will compete with several companies that are developing dedicated CubeSat and small satellite launchers. NASA last month awarded CubeSat launch contracts worth a combined $17.1 million to three startups, Firefly Space Systems of Cedar Park, Texas; RocketLab USA, based in Los Angeles and New Zealand; and Virgin Galactic, a California-based offshoot of Richard Branson’s London-based Virgin Group.
“ULA launches are still relatively infrequent, and the places the rockets go are predetermined months, if not years, ahead of time by the primary customer, so I think the dedicated small satellite launcher is still needed,” said SpaceWorks Chief Executive John Olds.
ULA will charge about $100,000 to launch a one-unit CubeSat, said company spokeswoman Lyn Chassagne, referring to a single 4-inch (10-cm) cube-shaped spacecraft weighing about 3 pounds (1.3 kg). The modular units can be connected to form larger spacecraft. Rides will be free for university researchers and educational users, Bruno said.