08/19/2016

The Race to Build a Smaller Rocket

8:10 minutes

Vector Space tested a 12 ft rocket prototype in the Mojave desert this past July. A planned full scale version will be just 42 ft long. Credit: Kevin Baxter
Vector Space tested a 12-foot rocket prototype in the Mojave desert this past July. A planned full-scale version will be just 42 feet long. Credit: Kevin Baxter

There’s a new space race underway, but this competition isn’t quite on the scale of the one that took place between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

This time, NASA isn’t even a key player.

Instead, today’s space race is taking place among private companies vying to build tiny rockets.

Why the rush to deliver a smaller rocket? Tim Fernholz, a reporter for the website Quartz, says the satellite technology that depends on rockets to reach low Earth orbit is getting smaller — and more popular — all the time.

“What used to be a 500-pound or 1-ton satellite is now maybe 100 pounds,” Fernholz says. “As people are seeing what these small satellites can do, they’re getting ideas about what they can do in orbit.”

Modern satellite technology helps us navigate, communicate and track crime, among other boons. But one of the biggest obstacles to satellite-based business is the hassle of putting satellites into orbit. Fernholz notes it can cost tens of thousands of dollars per pound to launch an object into space. So Silicon Valley investors are suddenly paying attention to innovations in lightweight, reliable space transportation. And private companies like Vector Space, Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic are kicking small rocket development into high gear.

“The Vector Space rocket or the Virgin Galactic rocket, those are going to be 40 feet, 60 feet long,” Fernholz says. “But when you think about [how] a SpaceX rocket is 14 stories tall, or the new SLS rocket that NASA is building to send people to the moon is even bigger than that? These are small for rockets.”

Space technology companies are racing to build a rocket that will carry small satellites into low earth orbit. Credit: NASA
Space technology companies are racing to build a rocket that will carry small satellites into low Earth orbit. Credit: NASA

The field looks so profitable that even companies with large rockets are exploring the appeal of using their equipment to launch small satellites. Fernholz says that both SpaceX and United Launch Alliance are developing racks for their large rockets to carry numerous small satellites in a single mission — think “ride sharing” for space.

But just like on Earth, splitting a ride into orbit on someone else’s timeline seems somehow less appealing than taking a private, on-demand rocket.

“These big guys are based around an economic model of putting really huge, heavy satellites very high up in the air. And so this new business model of having a lot of tiny satellites pretty low in space just doesn’t jive, and [the small satellites] end up tagging along on these missions up to space,” Fernholz says. “They don’t get to pick how they launch. … They also have to wait 14 months, 18 months to get up into space, which if you’re a Silicon Valley person and you want to iterate, and you want to break things and fail fast, 18 months is an eternity.”

Especially because over the next few years, private companies are preparing to more than double the number of active satellites in low Earth orbit. Fernholz says that in addition to the 1,300 active satellites currently in orbit, OneWeb and SpaceX’s satellite division want to provide global broadband internet by launching 700 satellites each.

It’s getting crowded out there, Fernholz says.

“It’s going to be an issue of coordination and planning and getting everybody in the right spot,” Fernholz says. “There’s still a lot of room, but people are worried about space debris right now. There are little broken chunks of dead satellites, and screws from the International Space Station flying around.”

—Julia Franz (originally published on PRI.org)

Segment Guests

Tim Fernholz

Tim Fernholz is a reporter for Quartz. He’s based in New York.

Segment Transcript

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. There’s a new space race afoot. Now you may not have heard of it because, well, we’re not in the middle of an old Cold War. And NASA isn’t even a key player in this race. Today’s space race is taking place among small private companies racing to build tiny rockets.

Why? Tim Fernholz knows. He’s a reporter for Quartz magazine, and the author of a forthcoming book about the business of space. Tim, welcome to Science Friday.

TIM FERNHOLZ: Thanks. It’s great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: You are welcome. What’s behind the race to build small rockets?

TIM FERNHOLZ: Well, it’s the same things that are driving a lot of the fun technological improvements in our lives and it starts with miniaturization. A lot of people have smartphones and that’s just kind of the concrete evidence that we can put a really powerful computer in a very light package.

IRA FLATOW: So they’re building tiny little satellites?

TIM FERNHOLZ: Well, the same principles apply. What used to be maybe a 500 pound, a one ton satellite, is now maybe 100 pounds. Maybe it’s five pounds for CubeSats that weigh just a few kilograms. And as people are seeing what these small satellites can do, they’re getting ideas about what they can do in orbit. The big obstacle for doing any kind of business in orbit, above earth, is getting stuff up there. It costs tens of thousands of dollars per pound.

But now, the satellites are getting small enough. And new space companies are promising low enough launch costs, that Silicon Valley investors are throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at satellite businesses that people would have thought were crazy a decade ago.

IRA FLATOW: So who are the major players here?

TIM FERNHOLZ: So on the rocket side, you have a company called Vector Space. You have another called Firefly. You have a company called Rocket Labs. And you also have Richard Branson, the UK billionaire, whose company Virgin Galactic is also developing a rocket that fires from a plane, that will launch small satellites into space.

IRA FLATOW: I thought he was just in the tourism business.

TIM FERNHOLZ: You know, the tourism business is not going so well. They’re having a hard time getting that rocket off the ground. And really, they’re looking at this new surge of small satellites and saying, oh, well this is something that we can do and make a buck on.

IRA FLATOW: How big a rocket is a small rocket?

TIM FERNHOLZ: So the Vector Space rocket or the Virgin Galactic rocket, those are going to be 40 feet, 60 feet long, which is pretty big. I mean. But when you think about a SpaceX rocket is 14 stories tall. Or the new SLS rocket that NASA is building to send people to the moon is even bigger than that, these are small for rockets.

IRA FLATOW: So are the SpaceX people watching and saying hey, maybe we could get into that business, too?

TIM FERNHOLZ: Yes and no. What’s funny about SpaceX is when they originally started their company in 2002, this is what they thought they would do. They were going to build a small rocket and launch small satellites and that was going to be great. But then they succeeded in building the rocket and no one wanted to buy it from them. No one wanted to hire them. There wasn’t a market.

So they were like, forget this. Let’s build a big one. In the process, they did that, they lowered the cost so much that all of a sudden there’s a lot more demand. And suddenly now there are people who are building small satellites who will get– who have convinced these new companies to step into the– step into the role of launching them.

But now SpaceX and other competitors like Boeing and Lockheed’s joint venture, ULA, they’re like, oh we’re going to have to figure out how to do this, too. So they’re developing new special racks to carry lots of small satellites. And they’re working with companies that are like ride-sharing for space, who are kind of brokers for all these small satellite entrepreneurs with these big expensive rockets.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of ride-sharing, I guess you can call these other companies the Uber.

TIM FERNHOLZ: I certainly have.

IRA FLATOW: So why, if you want to build a small satellite, what are the pros and cons of choosing the big guys versus the new startup companies?

TIM FERNHOLZ: So all of these big guys are based around an economic model of putting really huge, heavy satellite very, very high up in the air. And so this new business model of having a lot of tiny satellites pretty low in space, it just doesn’t jive. And they end up kind if being, just tagging along on these missions up to space. They don’t really get to pick when they launch. They don’t get to pick how they launch. There’s no flexibility.

So it’s a hassle. And they also have to wait 14 months, 18 months to get up into space, which if you’re a Silicon Valley person and you want to iterate and you want to break things and fail fast, 18 months is an eternity. So if they can find a solution where they launch in just one month, then they have an opportunity compete perhaps.

IRA FLATOW: Being you mentioned Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley is a place where people raid each other’s companies for intellectual property ideas and smart people. Is that happening in the rocket building business also?

TIM FERNHOLZ: It’s a very close knit world. On the Vector Space team, there are former SpaceX people. Two former SpaceX executives are heading up Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne program. So there’s a lot of people going back and forth. But, because it’s such a small community, I mean yes, there is a sort of competition and a sense of back biting and don’t steal my engineers. But everybody knows everybody.

And a lot of these people now– you have to remember that this private space sector that’s taking off right now, did not exist five or ten years ago. And these guys were kind of nerds shooting off rockets in the desert for amateur purposes, working in the space industry, never doing what they really wanted to do. And now all of a sudden, there’s a bonanza and they think, oh my god, we’re going to build a rocket company.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I was going to say, I know that they’re these amateur rocket contests and expos every year. These are pretty big rockets and they do sort of go up there.

TIM FERNHOLZ: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: These and the people who are building these?

TIM FERNHOLZ: Yeah, so you know it’s funny. At United Launch Alliance, their interns just launched the world’s largest sport rocket, which is just like that. It’s like an amateur rocket. Some of them go up to the suborbital height, so maybe 10, 80 kilometers in the sky. These companies want to do something a little bit more ambitious, a little harder to do, but they have the funding. And they think they have the market for that.

IRA FLATOW: What’s the turning point for all of this that you can point to?

TIM FERNHOLZ: It’s hard to pick a single moment, but it really is SpaceX coming in and breaking up what had been kind of a military industrial complex. The rocket companies in the US at NASA contracts and Air Force contracts that frankly were bloated with billions of dollars. SpaceX came in and disrupted that market. Took a huge chunk of the market share. Everybody else in Silicon Valley is saying oh hey, we can do that, too, maybe.

IRA FLATOW: Do I have to get a license to launch a rocket?

TIM FERNHOLZ: You do.

IRA FLATOW: You do?

TIM FERNHOLZ: You do. Above a certain height, a certain size, but the FAA actually had to start an Office of Commercial Space Transportation. And now the FAA will approve these flights.

IRA FLATOW: So, is there enough room up there in space–

TIM FERNHOLZ: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: –for all of these little satellites that people want to put up.

TIM FERNHOLZ: Well, yes and no. I mean, space is quite big. And I would encourage anyone who’s listening to go to Quartz. Go to our website qz.com. We have a satellite map that puts this in perspective.

Space is quite big. There’s room. There are two companies right now that are helping drive this. One is OneWeb. The other is actually SpaceX’s Satellite division. Both of those companies want to launch literally 700 satellites each to provide broadband internet service to the world. So that’s a huge glut of satellites that need to go up there.

And that would almost– consider there are 1,300 active satellites in the world, right now. That would almost double it. So it’s going to be an issue of coordination and planning and getting everybody on the right spot.

There’s still a lot of room. But people are worried about space debris right now. There’s little broken chunks of dead satellites, screws from the ISS flying around. And some scientists are worried that if there’s like a chain reaction, like in the movie Gravity, it could be very bad for orbit.

IRA FLATOW: Is there one kind of satellite they all- the new companies want to put up, that there’s a demand for?

TIM FERNHOLZ: Uh, I wouldn’t say there’s one kind except in the sense that, a lot of them use what are called CubeSats. And those weigh maybe, five to ten pounds.

There’s a company that’s now called Planet. It used to be called Planet Labs. They all are going to operate the largest earth observation constellation of satellites. There are a bunch of guys who started off at NASA and started this company, and so CubeSats are kind of the lingua franca of the small satellite world, I think.

IRA FLATOW: Fascinating, Tim. Thank you. Fascinating. Tim Fernholz is a reporter for Quartz magazine.

Copyright © 2016 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of ScienceFriday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies

Meet the Producer

About Katie Feather

Katie Feather is an associate producer for Science Friday and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.

Explore More