Orbital Rush Hour

It really wasn’t that long ago when the two greatest superpowers were vying to put satellites into space. Now, 50 nations have their own satellites in low Earth orbit. If you’re a Thailand, say, you can call Space Systems/Loral, a Canadian-owned company based in Palo Alto, California, and tell them you want to put a satellite into geostationary orbit for television broadcasting or military communications. You can have the thing in orbit 25,000 miles above Earth within two years. What’s more, competitors are pushing that lead time down to eighteen months or less. And the cost is plummeting, all thanks to competition among private industry.

Already the slots in geostationary orbit and low Earth orbit are beginning to get crowded. At last count, 1,469 satellites were in orbit, a third of them American. Currently, competition exists largely because of governments, thanks to the large price of putting a satellite into orbit—at least $50 million and as much as half a billion. Most of that price comes from the cost of the rocket, vehicle, and fuel. Most of the rocket, in fact, is fuel—including the fuel required to carry the fuel. To launch a satellite into low Earth orbit, the rocket must push against gravity and atmosphere to achieve a speed of 17,000 miles an hour. For geostationary orbit, the required speed is 6,875 miles an hour. The greater the weight of the launch vehicle, spacecraft and satellite, the higher the cost. Not long ago, the price per pound of sending an object into low Earth orbit was about $5,000. Now, the Russian Proton-M rocket may have cut that cost by half.

Musk’s SpaceX intends to drive the price down still further—far enough to create a true private market in space. One big cost-saving measure is the reusable vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) rocket. Both SpaceX and Blue Origin have built working VTOL rockets. SpaceX, with its big Falcon Heavy rocket, promises a price per pound in low Earth orbit of $709. Whether or not Musk can achieve that goal, the goal itself is crucial. Private industry is exceptionally good at producing technology that can conduct repeated tasks at a low cost. Whole economies are based on this sort of feat.

Capitalism itself, of course, is based on competition, and the number of companies vying to put satellites into space is growing. Jeff Bezos is one of Musk’s most celebrated competitors. But Blue Origin is just one of at least 16 companies, along with three commercial wings of national space agencies, making rockets to launch satellites commercially. Two are European partnerships, several American, three Russian, along with Japanese, Iranian, Indian, and assorted multi-national firms. All are vying to bring launch costs down.

Another way to lower the cost of satellites is to make them smaller—much smaller. The miniaturization of electronic circuits has allowed for satellites to shrink dramatically. Sputnik, two feet in diameter, could do nothing more than emit radio pulses. The largest satellite currently in space, a top-secret spy satellite launched by the U.S. military in 2010, is floating in geosynchronous orbit over the equator. It required a massive lift by a Delta IV Heavy rocket, capable of 1.9 million pounds of thrust. While the Pentagon will not release the figures, the cost was certainly large.

By contrast, a new market is springing up for nanosatellites, complex equipment weighing just two to 22 pounds. These satellites can be launched individually or in clusters, saving huge amounts of fuel and allowing the development of specialized small rockets to carry them. Then there are the emerging pico­satellites, super lightweights of a couple pounds or less, which can be launched in swarms. Among the most famous is the CubeSat, originally conceived by engineers at California Polytechnic State University and Stanford in 1999. This cube of circuitry and communications equipment, weighing two pounds, can be built and launched for as little as $150,000. A CubeSat can piggyback with larger equipment on a rocket launch, sent out from the International Space Station, or be deployed in groups to communicate with a mother satellite. CubeSats are ideal for high-risk laboratory experiments—science with a relatively low chance of success. NASA recently announced a Cube Quest Challenge to design picosatellites to orbit the Moon in 2018. Five teams, a mixture of universities and private companies, have won $20,000 prizes for completing the first round.