The price of space

The price of access to space is changing and this combined with rise of CubeSats and more powerful sensors that can do more for less cost, in both money and weight, is opening up a lot of options that have not been available before.

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Over the last month there have been some very interesting developments in getting to space, the use of space and the cost effectiveness of space. We are passionate about space, accessing space and making the best use of space to benefit humanity, our planet and the survival of our species so these developments all relate. In this article, we’ll have a look at the cost of accessing space and how the issue is more than just cost per kilogram. Next up is the kind of technological advantages that are coming to fruition from the miniaturisation of space-based sensors and systems.

Cost per Kilogram

It costs a lot of money to get things into space. The cost comes from having to accelerate to such a speed to maintain an orbit, as we covered in this article. This includes the engine and fuel for the first stage and the second stage, unless it’s a single stage to orbit then there’s no complication of the second stage. So all of this stuff has to be hauled of the ground and then some of it into orbit before the satellite gets to the right place. But to be fair, the cost of getting to space has fallen dramatically since the days of the Space Shuttle Programe, which cost about $20,000 per kilogram.

The heavy lifters

The modern costs range from around $5000 per kilogram for the SpaceX Falcon9 and the cost of the Falcon Heavy may come down to about $4000 per kilogram. United Launch Alliance (ULA), rocket pictured below, have a website where you can build a rocket to get an idea of the cost, and based on this you can get the cost down to $5733 per kilogram on a fully loaded Atlas V. By comparison, an Ariane 5 will put 20,000kg into LEO for $9,600 per kilo. The PSLV from the Indian IRSO can launch 3800kg for about $7900 per kilogram.


The new kids on the block

Rocket lab’s electron (pictured below) will do it for $40,000 per kilo, for a 150kg payload. The economics of that might look a bit dodgy at the fisrt glance, because, clearly $40,000 is considerably more than all of the heavier launches above. But if you consider that you can launch a satellite up to 200kg or so, whenever you want and to your own specifications at $6million per launch then that is a whole lower entry bar than the $190million+ that you would need to do the same with an Ariane 5, for example. This opens up a whole new opportunity for people who currently have to wait to piggy back their satellites onto the larger rockets. Another important aspect of the service that Rocket Lab offers is the ability to fly different payloads from the same launch to different orbits (within limits) through an engine that can be turned on and off. With the larger launches you’re stuck with what the primary payload has to do. This means that smaller customers have to compromise on the orbit they get. So the cost may be greater per kilogram, but the flexibility and entry level is more realistic from providers like Rocket Lab.


Smaller payloads

Another important aspect of how space is developing is the continued miniaturisation of sensors and the lower weights of payloads. This has led to the rise of more and more tiny satellites that are becoming increasingly powerful. An example is the use of smaller and smaller spacecraft to run Synthetic Aperature Radar (SAR) sensors. The early versions of these satellites were large (RADARSAT 2 was 2,300 kilograms), but over time they have shrunk and capturing their data has got cheaper and cheaper. This year there have already been a couple of launches of small SAR capable satellites that are going to make access to all-weather earth observation a lot cheaper than what we’re used to.


The above image is from www.unavco.org and shows the development of SAR capable satellites over the last couple of decades. The striking thing from this picture is the rapidly growing number of these sensors now available. This sort of satellite sensor based is very useful for disaster relief, land use and surveillance for resource protection. An example is the Finnish company ICEYE, which is wanting to build a fleet of SAR capable satellites that are under 100 kilograms and have the first capability launched this year and the full constellation in operation by 2019. They are trying to build these with commercially available technology for just a couple of million dollars each, if you combine that with the reduced entry prices for launch, like what Rocket Lab are offering, then they could put a constellation into orbit giving global coverage for under $20 million. This sort of price was unthinkable even 5 years ago. To give some idea of the price comparison, RADARSAT 1 (RADARSAT 2 is pictured in the featured image) cost around $620 million back in 1995.

What’s next

Our use of space is changing, and it’s changing fast. Payloads are getting smaller and there’s going to be more of them. CubeSats are becoming more and more powerful, they are being linked and swarmed. The increasing power of computer processes and the growth of cognitive processing is linking sensors in smarter and smarter ways. We’re in for some really interesting times as more of the world will be able to access space.