10. Integration, Launch and Deployment

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In 2017 sixty two percent of all satellite launches fell under the “nanosat” category. Two hundred and eighty nine small spacecraft were launched versus one hundred and seventy nine larger spacecraft 1. Forecasts show that the balance will shift even more towards small spacecraft in the near future. State of the art technologies in launch vehicles, integration, and deployment systems are responding to the changing small spacecraft market to support new, advanced missions with diverse technologies that will take small spacecraft further into both space and the future.

Since launch vehicle capabilities usually exceed the requirements of the primary customer, there is usually enough residual mass, volume, and other performance margins available for delivery of small spacecraft on a mission. Small spacecraft can exploit this surplus capacity for an inexpensive ride to space. A large market of adapters and deployment, technologies has been created to compactly house multiple small spacecraft on existing launchers. These technologies provide both a secure attachment to the launcher as well as mechanisms for departure at the appropriate time. This ride-share method is the first and still the primary way of putting small spacecraft into orbit, but the new technological advancements show that the popularity of classical ride-sharing might slowly decrease in the upcoming years. Dedicated ride-sharing, where an integrator books a complete launch and sells the available capacity to multiple spacecraft operators without the presence of a primary customer, is a new and interesting approach in the sector. Additionally, nanosatellite form factors are increasing in dimensions which require larger deployers to accommodate these larger CubeSat sizes.

Although not a new idea, using orbital maneuvering systems to deliver small spacecraft to intended orbits is another growing technology. Several commercial companies are developing orbital tugs to be launched with state of the art launch vehicles to an approximate orbit, but then propel themselves to another orbit with their on-board propulsion system where they will deploy their hosted small spacecraft.

In the future, the expanding capabilities of small payloads will also demand dedicated launchers. For missions that need a very specific orbit, interplanetary trajectories, precisely timed rendezvous, or special environmental considerations, flying the spacecraft as a primary payload may be the best method of ascent. This will enable fields from technology development to hard sciences to take advantage of the quick iteration time and low capital cost of small spacecraft to yield new and exciting advances in space capabilities and understanding.

The author would like to highlight that the presented tables are not intended to be exhaustive but to provide an overview of current state of the art technologies and their development status for this small spacecraft subsystem.

State of the Art

Launch Integration Services

Generally, the launch vehicle customer decides whether secondary payloads will share a ride with a primary payload and if so, how these secondary payloads are dispensed. In most cases, the launch vehicle (LV) customer is the primary payload. However, there are cases where a program or integration company can determine ride-share possibilities. More flexibility may be available to secondary payloads that are funded through such a program, although the mission schedule is generally decided by the primary payload. Typical ride-share integration services are general services provided by these integration companies that focus on LV integrations and do not vary due to mission requirements of the primary payload. Standardized services include system testing, engineering development support, hardware of the dispenser, and necessary integration such as spacecraft-to-dispenser and dispenser-to-LV. Ride-share integration services may depend heavily on the primary payload and can include de-integration (e.g., executing a separation maneuver), mission and science-specific services, special analyses related to hardware and integration services, and isolated venting, shock, vibration, and thermal environmental control.

Examples of launch integration companies are given below. These companies purchase the excess capacity on existing rockets and integrate as many small payloads as possible into this capacity, therefore contribute the usage of the launch vehicle with higher efficiency.

Adaptive Launch Solutions (ALS)

Adaptive Launch Solutions provides launch integration services for small spacecraft on Atlas and Delta launch vehicles. The company is responsible for mission integration, thermal, coupled load, contamination, vibration, acoustic, shock, circuit, power, and venting models, analysis and test. ALS develops Auxiliary Payload Support Unit mission software providing sequenced power switching and separation validation to each auxiliary payload separation system 2.

Commercial Space Technologies (CST)

Commercial Space Technologies Ltd. is a consultancy company registered and based in London, with a representative office in Moscow. CST has negotiated and procured LVs for small spacecraft customers, having managed the interaction between launch provider and customer for 33 successful missions. This has been achieved with the use of five different LVs launched from three different launch sites 3.

Innovative Solutions in space

Innovative Solutions in Space (ISIS) is a spacecraft company based in the Netherlands and established in 2006. The company is focused on spacecraft in the range of 1 to 20 kg and supplying components, and launch services. In June 2014, the company sent 23 cubesats into orbit on a Dnepr rocket and deployed them from their QuadPack dispenser. ISIS is in charge of the QB50 launch campaign scheduled for 2016, an initiative to send fifty university-built cubesats to conduct research in Earth’s lower thermosphere 4.


QinetiQ North America (QNA) is a company with expertise in launch vehicle procurement, design, analysis, manufacturing oversight, integration, testing, mission management and launch. The company is supporting over twenty of the manifested Falcon 9 missions 5.

Moog CSA Engineering

Moog CSA, located in Mountain View, CA, has been assisting commercial and military aerospace customers for more than thirty years to provide vibration isolation systems, tuned mass dampers for vibration control, softride spacecraft isolation systems, shock test services, and spacecraft transport shipping containers. The company also provides integration support for its customers 6.


Nanoracks, founded in 2009, is a company located in Houston, Texas, which hosts accommodation and an array of equipment for experiments on ISS. The company offers ISS-deployment services to its customers since 2014. In 2015, NanoRacks teamed up with Blue Origin to offer services for the New Shepard Suborbital Vehicle 7.

Spaceflight Services

Spaceflight Services, founded in 2010 and based in Seattle, provides routine access to space for deployed and hosted small payloads by using published commercial pricing, standard interfaces, and frequent flight opportunities. Specific integration services provided include engineering analysis, spacecraft-to-dispenser and LV integration, flight service, and standard interface options for payloads. Spaceflight has put its first payload into orbit in 2013, has launched eighty one spacecraft since then and has over one hundred and thirty five spacecraft to deploy through 2018 8. The company’s SSPS (Spaceflight Secondary Payload System) is designed to transport secondary and hosted payloads to space using the excess capacity on commercial launch vehicles. The SSPS can accommodate up to five 300 kg spacecraft, or many smaller spacecraft, on each of its five ports and operates independently from the primary launch vehicle to simplify payload and mission integration 9. The company is also developing a space tug (SHERPA), which builds upon the capabilities of the SSPS by incorporating propulsion and power generation subsystems, which can maneuver its secondary payloads to higher LEO altitudes, GEO, or even interplanetary trajectories. The first SHERPA mission is manifested on a SpaceX Falcon 9 early in 2016 with eighty nine payloads on board 10.


The University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies Space Flight Laboratory (UTIAS/SFL) provides launch services for small spacecraft. The laboratory has arranged launches for more than ten spacecraft from different countries since 2002. Past launches have included Indian (PSLV) and Russian (Rockot, COSMOS-3M, Dnepr, Soyuz) vehicles. The laboratory has a dispenser system called the XPOD which can be used for any size of spacecraft up to 16 kg 11.

TriSept Corporation

TriSept Corporation has been integrating spacecraft ranging from the size of school buses to cubesats over the past twenty one years. Specific to small spacecraft, the company has physically integrated over seventy four payloads on both suborbital, LEO, and GEO launches on multiple spacecraft missions. TriSept provides spacecraft providers a total mission integration service, from concept development, interface requirements definition, launch vehicle selection and contracting, mission analyses, integration hardware provisions, fitchecks and pathfinders, integration, test, and payload certification, to launch and spacecraft deployment. The company currently serves as the lead integrator for the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, managing the Office’s complex multiple spacecraft ride-share missions, such as the ORS-3 mission, which consisted of thirty one distinct payloads in November 2013, and the ORS-4 mission, which is set to launch thirteen payloads on the first launch of the Super Strypi small launch vehicle. TriSept Corporation is also developing the FANTM-RiDE family of dispenser systems and manifesting several traditional and dedicated ride-share launch missions to serve the small spacecraft industry 12.

Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL)

SSTL, majority-owned by EADS Astrium, builds and operates small spacecraft. On the launcher side, the company negotiates with launch providers to procure cost effective launch opportunities 13.

Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems LLC

Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems LLC provides launch services for small spacecraft and has launch experience with payloads ranging from 1 kg to 100 kg. To date over 120 spacecraft have been successfully launched and 40 additional spacecraft are currently manifested. The integration services for NASA’s first inter-planetary cubesat (MarCO) mission to Mars is handled by the company. Tyvak provides a complete launch support solution including development of launch vehicle payload interfaces and associated documentation, spacecraft testing and qualification, development of spacecraft accommodations including standardized deployment systems, launch manifesting documentation including frequency allocation and ODAR analysis. To support its launch activities the company offers a number of standardized deployers including systems compatible with 1U, 3U, 6U and 12U spacecraft 14.

Dedicated Launchers of Small Spacecraft

In the context of this report, launch vehicles with total LEO capacity of 500 kg or less are considered to be dedicated launchers for small payloads. Small spacecraft have been in orbit for more than fifteen years. However, their popularity (and the annual number of small spacecraft launches) has not been significant until 2013, therefore a robust market of small launchers has not still yet developed. As the capabilities of small spacecraft are increasing, they are starting to drive the demand in the market. This section summarizes the current launch vehicles that have operated since 2000 (or plan to operate in the near future) to serve as dedicated launchers for these small spacecraft, and Table 10.1 summarizes primary launchers.

Table 10.1: Primary Payload Launchers
Product Manufacturer LEO Capacity Number of Secondary Payloads Launched to Date Description Launch Method TRL Status
ACE Micro LV Gloyer-Taylor Laboratories 150 kg 0 1-stage, all liquid Land 5
Bloostar Zero2Infinity 140 kg 0 5-stage, 1 Balloon, 4 Liquid Air 6
Demi-Sprite Scorpius Space Launch Company 160 kg 0 3-stage, all liquid Land 5
Electron Rocket Lab 225 kg 4 2-stage, all liquid Land 9
Minotaur 1 Northrup Grumman Innovation Systems 580 kg >62 4-stage, all solid Land 9
Minotaur 5 Northrup Grumman Innovation Systems 630 kg (to GEO) 0 5-stage, all solid Land 9
Pegasus Northrup Grumman Innovation Systems 450 kg 8 3-stage, all solid Air 9
Super Strypi University of Hawaii, Sandia National Laboratories, Aerojet 275 kg to 400 km SSO, 320 kg to 400 km equatorial 0 3-stage, all solid Land 6
Vector-R Vector Launch Inc. 61 kg to 250 km, 26 kg to 450 km 0 2-stage, all liquid Land 5

ACE Micro LV

The Advanced Cryogenic Expendable (ACE) launch vehicle is a high-performance expendable rocket stage that is capable of delivering small payloads to orbit from Gloyer-Taylor Laboratories (GTL). The ACE vehicle achieves its performance advantage through the use of a suite of breakthrough technologies that have achieved TRL 6+ from a decade of research that included support from DARPA, NASA and the Air Force.  ACE achieves its cost advantage by leveraging the performance advantage to reduce parts count, simplify the system design and streamline launch operations.

GTL has completed the ACE preliminary design and is beginning detailed component development and testing. Integrated stage ground testing scheduled for 2020 with first flight scheduled for 2021. GTL is also developing a small version of ACE to deliver 500-1000 kg payloads to LEO and a medium version of ACE to carry 5,000 kg payloads to LEO. The propellant is LOX/CH4 and is designed to deliver 150 kg to 750 km circular LEO.


Bloostar Concept. Image Courtesy of Zero2Infinity

Zero2Infinity’s Bloostar launch vehicle (see Figure 10.1) uses a balloon as a first-stage. A helium balloon will be launched from a ship and will carry the system to over 20 km altitude, where the rocket is ignited. The system will be able to insert a 75 kg payload into a 600 km polar orbit. Payload accommodation can host a single spacecraft or multiple payloads. The company states that in the event of a launch abort, the high-altitude balloon will be detached from the platform and the platform will descend with a parachute 1. The system will use liquid oxygen and liquid methane as propellants. The first stage will carry the system to 250 km altitude and an inertial speed of 3.7 kms-1. After the second stage operation, the system will achieve an altitude of 530 km with velocity of 5.4 kms-1. The third and final stage will fire at least twice with a coast period to achieve the final orbit. Preliminary testing of the system has already started. In September 2013, an inflatable flexible pressurized vehicle flew to 27 km under a balloon. A test version of the pressure-fed light hydrocarbon/oxygen engine was fired in September 2014. The engine was ignited several times and the cooling system functioned well. The first small-scale prototype launch was conducted in 2017 2.


Demi-Sprite Mode. Image Courtesy of Microcosm, Inc.

The Scorpius Space Launch Company (SSLC), the sister company of Microcosm, is developing the Demi-Sprite (see Figure 10.2) as part of its line of modular Scorpius vehicles. The Demi-Sprite is one of the smallest vehicles in the line. The launcher will be able to put 160 kg payloads into LEO. It consists of a core stage surrounded by six identical pods that compose first and second stages. Key to the vehicle’s simplicity is the absence of turbopumps for pressurizing its LOX and RP-1 propellants. The only moving parts on the vehicle are valves and gimbals. The system aims to provide true launch-on-demand service within 8 hours of arrival of the payload at the launch site 3. The core technologies have been validated in two successful suborbital flights with the Scorpius SR-S and SR-XM vehicles, therefore the TRL of the system is set to 5.


Rocket Lab Ltd. is an American launch company originating out of New Zealand that designs and fabricates sounding rockets, small spacecraft launch systems, and propulsion systems. The company’s Electron launch vehicle, which can be seen in Figure 10-3, is a two-stage system which uses turbo-pumped LOX/RP-1 engines. The pumps are battery-powered electric motors rather than a gas generator, expander, or preburner. The system is designed to lift 150 kg to 500 km SSO and the company states it can be tailored to circular or elliptical orbits between 45° and 98° inclination. The company plans to provide one hundred annual launches 4. Electron is one of the three systems which has awarded by NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) for CubeSat missions to LEO. The first Electron launch occurred in 2017 but the second stage was destroyed by range safety after telemetry data was lost at 224 km. The second launch in 2018 lifted 6 CubeSats to LEO successfully . The system is operational and has a TRL of 9

Electron. Image Courtesy of Rocket Lab, Ltd.


Pegasus Launch System, mounted underneath a Lockheed~1011 jet. Image Courtesy of Orbital ATK.

The Pegasus (Figure 10-4), an air-launched vehicle built by Orbital Sciences, is a small- to medium-lift launcher that has a heritage of successful launches since 1996. The system is able to deliver 450 kg to LEO with three solid stages. Different variants of the vehicle have a flight history of forty three missions between since 1990, thirty seven of which are fully successful. The rocket’s variant carried NASA Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) mission (183 kg) in June 2013. The first mission for small spacecraft carried eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellites (CYGNSS) (20 kg each) to space in December 2016. There is one Pegasus launch on the manifest dedicated for small spacecraft in 2018. This mission will inject the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) (279 kg) into orbit  19,20. The system is operational with a TRL of 9.


Figure 10.2: Minotaur I Launch Vehicle. Image Courtesy of NASA.

The Minotaur launcher family, also produced by Orbital Sciences, is another medium lift vehicle currently available. Out of the entire family, the Minotaur I (Figure 10-5) is more suited to small spacecraft since it has the lowest payload capacity and cost. The vehicle has conducted eleven missions with a 100% success rate, delivering sixty two spacecraft into orbit. The Minotaur I is designed with four solid stages from a converted Minuteman ballistic missile. With a payload capacity of 580 kg to LEO, the vehicle can carry many small spacecraft into orbit in a single mission. On 20 November 2013, a Minotaur I placed twenty eight small spacecraft (all but one were CubeSats) and two experiment packages into orbit.

A larger member of the family, the Minotaur V, is a five-stage vehicle and is designed to place up to 630 kg of payload into a GTO, or 340 kg on a trans-lunar trajectory. The vehicle made its maiden flight in 2013 carrying the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) (383 kg) spacecraft. However it has not yet carried any orbital payload 21.

Super Strypi

Another vehicle on market which can be called as a dedicated small spacecraft carrier is Super Strypi. This vehicle, also known as the Low Earth Orbiting Nanosatellite Integrated Defense Autonomous System (LEONIDAS), is a three-stage launcher developed jointly by the Innovative Satellite Launch Program at the University of Hawaii in cooperation with Sandia National Laboratories and Aerojet. The vehicle has a simple, rail-launched, spin-stabilized design with fixed fins and cold gas attitude control system for second stage and third stage maneuvering and orbital insertion. The system is designed to integrate payloads with the NASA Ames Nanosatellite Launch Adapter System (NLAS). Payload-to-orbit is about 275 kg to 400 km Sun synchronous orbit from Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) in Kauai, Hawaii and about 320 kg to 400 km equatorial orbit from US east coast launch sites 22. The unsuccessful first flight of the system occurred in October 2015. The TRL of the system is 6.


Another rocket being developed primarily with small satellite payloads in mind is the Vector-R rocket from Vector Launch Inc. The rocket consists of two liquid stages and plans to bring 61 kg to an altitude of 250 km or 26 kg to an altitude of 450 km. The rocket has completed a few static engine test fires and completed its second low altitude (<3000m) test flight in August of 2017. The first orbital test flight of the Vector-R is scheduled to occur during the Summer of 2018 5.

Launchers Which Offer Ride-Sharing Opportunities for Small Spacecraft

As seen from the previous section, there are currently only a few launchers that allows small spacecraft to ride as primary payloads. The majority of small spacecraft are carried to orbit as secondary payloads, utilizing the excess launch capability of the larger rockets. Standard ride-sharing consists of a primary mission with surplus mass, volume, and performance margins which are used by other spacecraft. These spacecraft are also called secondary payloads, auxiliary payloads or piggyback spacecraft. For both educational and commercial small spacecraft, several initiatives have helped provide these opportunities. NASA’s CubeSat launch initiative, for example, has provided rides to a number of schools and NASA centers. As of August 2015, thirty seven CubeSats have been launched, and sixteen more are scheduled to go into space in the next twelve months within this program 24.

Table 10.2: Secondary Payload Launchers
Product Manufacturer LEO Capacity Description Number of Secondary Payloads Launched to Date Launch Method TRL Status
Antares Orbital Sciences 5000 kg 2-stage, liquid + solid 4 Land 9
Anriane 5 European Space Angency 20000 kg 2-stage, all liquid (+solid boosters) 4 Land 9
Atlas V United Launch Alliance 19000 kg 2-stage, all liquid (+solid boosters) >47 Land 9
Delta II United Launch Alliance 3470 kg 2/3-stage, all liquid > 16 Land 9
Delta IV United Launch Alliance 28000 kg 2-stage, all liquid (+solid boosters) 3 Land 9
Dnepr Yuzhny Machine-Building Plant 4500 kg 3-stage, all liquid >122 Land 9
Falcon 9 Space Exploration Technologies 13150 kg 2-stage, all liquid >19 Land 9
H-HA/B Mitsubishi Heavy Industries 10000 kg/16500 kg 2-stage, all liquid (+solid boosters) >42 Land 9
Long March China Academy of Launch Vehicle 11200 kg 3-stage, all liquid >46 Land 9
Minotaur-C Orbital Sciences 1320 kg 4-stage all solid 10 Land 9
PSLV Indian Space Research Organization 3250 kg 4-stage, solid & liquid 200 Land 9
Rokot Eurockor Launch Services 1950 kg 3-stage, all liquid >8 Land 9
Soyuz OKB-1, TsSKB-Progross 7800 kg 3-stage, all liquid (+liquid boosters) >37 Land 9
Vega European Space Angency 1500 kg 3+1 stage, solid & liquid 15 Land 9

From the secondary payload designers’ perspective, ride-share arrangements provide far more options for immediate launch at high TRL. Since almost any large launcher can fit a small payload within its mass and volume margins, there is no shortage of options for craft that want to fly as a secondary payload. On the other hand, there are downsides of hitching a ride. The launch date and trajectory is determined in favor of the primary payload and the smaller craft have to take what is available. Also in some cases, they need to be delivered to the launch operator and be integrated on the adapter weeks before the actual launch date. Generally the secondary payloads are given permission to be powered on and deployed once the launch vehicle has successfully completed its primary mission. This section lists the launch vehicles which offered ride-share opportunities to small spacecraft in the last fifteen years and Table 10.2 summarizes these launch vehicles.


 Antares launch
Figure 10.3: Antares launch. Image Courtesy of Orbital ATK.

The Antares (Figure 10-6), known as Taurus II during its early development, made its inaugural flight on 21 April 2013. It carried four CubeSats (three Phonesats from NASA Ames and one Dove from Planet Labs). After this demonstration flight, the vehicle had three successful flights to ISS with its primary payload Cygnus Cargo Vehicle on board. The vehicle had a catastrophic failure during its launch on 28 October 2014 with Arkyd-3 spacecraft (Planetary Resources) and a RACE CubeSat (NASA JPL/UT-Austin CubeSat) on board. Since 2015, the Antares has been used for ISS resupply missions and crew exchanges.  Since the system is operational, the TRL is 9.

Ariane 5

Figure 10.4: Ariane 5. Image Courtesy of ESA/CNES/Arianespace-Photo Optique Video CSG.

Ariane 5 (Figure 10-7) is a European heavy lift launch vehicle to deliver payloads into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) or LEO. Although Ariane 5 is a workhorse for Europe, there have been very few secondary missions in the past atop this vehicle. The first example was Amsat P3D, a 400 kg amateur radio spacecraft, which was injected into highly elliptical orbit in 2000. The SMART-1 spacecraft (367 kg) was flown as a secondary payload into geostationary transfer orbit in 2003 and then traveled to orbit the Moon using its own propulsion system. In 2009, two demonstration spacecraft for the infrared warning system (SPIRALE), each weighing 120 kg, hitched a ride to elliptical equatorial orbit. The Ariane 5 is able to carry up to eight 100 kg (standard) payloads or four 180 kg (banana) payloads on its ASAP (Ariane Structure for Auxiliary Payload) platform 25. Since the SPIRALE launch the Ariane 5 hasn’t lifted any small satellites as secondary payloads.

Atlas & Delta

atlas 5
Figure 10.6: Atlas 5. Image Courtesy of NASA.

The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program’s boosters, the Atlas and Delta, have been common secondary launchers for small spacecraft programs to date. The EELV Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA ring) has flown everything from larger payloads like the NASA LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) mission to several CubeSats in Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployers (P-PODs).

The Atlas V (Figure 10-8) can deliver from 9,800 kg to almost 19,000 kg into a 200 km LEO orbit at 28.7° inclination depending on configuration 26. Starting with its maiden launch in August 2002, the vehicle has had a near-perfect success rate. The vehicle had carried more than thirty secondary payloads to orbit to date. On May 5, 2018 the Atlas V successfully launched the MarCO-A and MarCO-B 6U CubeSats on a hyperbolic orbit towards Mars 6.

delta 2
Figure 10.7: Delta 2. Image Courtesy of NASA.

The Delta II (Figure 10-9) can deliver from approximately 1,870 kg to 3,470 kg to LEO depending on configuration 28. In 2000 the 6 kg Munin (Swedish Institute of Space Physics), and in 2003 the 64 kg Chipsat (NASA) and the 28 kg XSS 10 (AFRL), were launched atop a Delta II. Also in 2011, the vehicle carried five CubeSats as a part of the NASA’s ELANA program. In 2017 a Delta II carried five CubeSats to LEO as secondary payloads BROKEN! [29] The final Delta II launch is scheduled for Fall 2018 and will carry an additional three CubeSats to LEO 7. Another member of the family, the Delta IV, can deliver from 9,200 kg to over 28,000 kg to a 200 km LEO at 28.7° inclination depending on configuration 30.

The vehicle carried AFRL’s 70 kg ANGELS spacecraft as a secondary payload in 2014. The Delta IV Heavy is the most powerful member of the family with 29,000 kg carrying capacity to LEO. In 2004, the vehicle allowed a ride for AFRL’s two Nanosat-2 spacecraft (23 kg each). Since these systems are operational, the TRL is 9.


The Dnepr launch vehicle had its first flight in 1999 and has had twenty successful launches since then. The baseline version can lift 3600 kg into a 300 km LEO at 50.6° inclination, or 2300 kg to a 300 km SSO at 98.0°inclination. This Russian vehicle has been used extensively by secondary payloads since its first flights. It has carried more than 120 small spacecraft (200 kg or less) to date. During April 2007 launch, the vehicle lifted thirteen small spacecraft (each less than 35 kg) together with one 165 kg satellite. In November 2013, it carried thirty two spacecraft into orbit, thirty of which were satellites weighing less than 150 kg (including 23 CubeSats). In June 2014, it carried thirty seven spacecraft into orbit, thirty six of which were satellites weighing less than 185 kg (including twenty six CubeSats). This launch is still the record for the most satellites orbited in a single launch (excluding the payloads carried to ISS via cargo missions). Since the system is operational, the TRL is 9.

Falcon 9

falcon 9
Figure 10.10: Falcon 9. Image Courtesy of SpaceX.

The Falcon family of rockets from Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is proving to be another valuable asset to the small spacecraft community. SpaceX’s only current launcher is the Falcon 9 (Figure 10.10), a two-stage LOX/RP-1 vehicle capable of lifting over 13,000 kg to LEO 31. SpaceX’s contracts with NASA to provide cargo services and eventually crewed missions to the International Space Station means those opportunities to ride-share will continue into the far future. Of all the 19 launches to date, 17 have been fully successful. Although it is capable, Falcon 9 has not been very active for carrying secondary payloads. Only during its second mission in 2010, it lifted eight cubesats together with its primary Dragon payload. However, aboard the Dragon module, it carries many cubesats to ISS which were then deployed into space from the deployers at the station. Since the system is operational, the TRL is 9.


Figure 10.11: H-IIA. Image Courtesy of JAXA.

The H-IIA/B are two Japanese launch systems. The H-IIA (Figure 10.11) first flew in 2001 and has been launched twenty eight times by October 2015 with a single failure. HII-B performed its maiden flight in 2009 and five successful launches since then. HII-A is able to carry 15000 kg to LEO whereas HII-B can carry up to 16500 kg to this orbit 32.

During its launches, HII-A carried more than twenty five small spacecraft into orbit, seven of which were cubesats. HII-B did not directly injected any payloads to orbit yet, but it carried fourteen cubesats aboard the HTV in 2012, 2013 and 2015; these spacecraft were deployed the Kibo module of the ISS. Since the system is operational, the TRL is 9.

Long March

Figure 10.12: Long March. Image Courtesy of CALT.

The Chinese Long March family (Figure 10.12) has not been very active for flying secondary payloads to date, however the new member of the family, Long March 6, lifted twenty small spacecraft in September 2015, at weights ranging from 1.5 kg to 130 kg. . Since 2015, the rate at which the Long March family is launching small satellite has accelerated greatly. The new Long March 5 and Long March 7 have both completed successful CubeSat launches in 2016 and 2018 8. Since the system is operational, the TRL is 9.


Figure 10.13: Minotaur-C. Image Courtesy of OSC.

First launched in 1994, Minotaur-C (Figure 10-13) has seven successful launches and three failures to date. The last successful flight of the vehicle was in 2004. The first launch to include small spacecraft occurred on October 31st, 2017 which lifted six 100kg Planet Labs SkySats and four other CubeSats 9. The vehicle’s TRL is 9.


Figure 10.14: PSLV. Image Courtesy of ISRO.

The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) (see Figure 10.14) is a launch system developed and operated by the Indian Space Research Organisation. The vehicle had thirty launches since its maiden flight in 1993, twenty eight of which were fully successful. To date, the vehicle has carried more than 200 small spacecraft as secondary payloads into orbit in various sizes. The most notable launch to date occurred on February 15th 2017 when 103 individual CubeSats were launched on a single PSLV 10. Since the system is operational, the TRL is 9.


Figure 10.15: Rockot. Image Courtesy of russianspaceweb.com.

Rockot (Figure 10.15) is a Russian space launch vehicle that can launch a payload of 1,950 kg into a 200 km LEO with 63° inclination. The system has its first orbital mission in 1994 followed by twenty five missions, three of which fully or partially failed. The only mission that Rockot carried secondary payloads on was in 2003, where the vehicle lifted six cubesats and two small spacecraft of 65 kg. Since the system is operational, the TRL is 9.


Figure 10.16: Soyuz. Image Courtesy of Arianespace.

Soyuz, shown in Figure 10.16, is a Russian launch vehicle family with large heritage of missions and currently the only man-rated launcher to the ISS. The first Soyuz had its maiden flight in 1966. With the retirement of Soyuz-U in 2015, only two variants of the family are in use from now on: Soyuz-FG and Soyuz-2. Dedicated to manned launches, since its first flight in 2001, Soyuz-FG has only once carried secondary payloads, delivering three small spacecraft to orbit during its July 2012 mission. Soyuz-2, on the other hand, has lifted more than twenty secondary payloads. Since the system is operational, the TRL is 9.


Figure 10.17: Vega. Image Courtesy of Arianespace.

The first Vega (Figure 10-17) lifted off on 13 February 2012 from French Guiana carrying eight small spacecraft (ALMASat 1, e-st@r, Goliat, MaSat-1, PW-Sat, ROBUSTA, UniCubeSat-GG, XaTcobeo). The second mission in 2013 carried one CubeSat (ESTCUBE 1) and two other small spacecraft (Vnredsat 1 and Proba V). The vehicle has had three more successful launches, but none of them contained small spacecraft. Vega launched four Skysat payloads in 2016 11. Since the system is operational, the TRL is 9.

Dedicated Ride-Share

A dedicated ride-share is a mission where a third party integrator purchases an entire launch from a launch vehicle provider and then contracts, manifests, and integrates multiple small spacecraft on that mission in the absence of a primary payload. This approach removes the constraint of the small spacecraft providers to adhere to a primary spacecraft provider’s mission requirements and provides the small spacecraft the ability to control more of the mission parameters. Dedicated ride-share is expected to increase the number and frequency of launch opportunities for small spacecraft, while at the same time, providing the cost benefit of splitting the launch cost and capacity on a single mission. Until now, two companies have announced their dedicated ride-share contracts, but more mission of this type will possibly follow.

Spaceflight Services

The company purchased a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for its first dedicated ride-share mission to SSO in late 2018. This launch will be named the “Sun Synch Express”. The mission manifest includes more than twenty spacecraft ranging from 3U CubeSats up to 575 kg spacecraft 37.

TriSept Corporation

TriSept Corporation will be another integrator offering dedicated ride-share missions with its FANTM-RIDE system. The schedule of the first dedicated flight is not officially announced according to the FANTM-RiDE main page 12.

Orbital Maneuvering Systems

One of the main disadvantages of riding as a secondary payload (even on a dedicated ride-share mission) is the inability to launch into your desired orbit. The primary payload determines the orbital destination, so the secondary payload orbit usually does not perfectly match the customer’s needs. However, by using a space tug, secondary payloads will be able to maneuver much closer into their desired orbits.


Figure 10.18: SHERPA. Image Courtesy of Spaceflight Industries.

SHERPA, (Shuttle Expendable Rocket for Payload Augmentation) shown in Figure 10-18, is a free-flying space tug, which is able to maneuver a total of 1500 kg payload, developed by Spaceflight Services. The system features five 61 cm diameter ports, each capable of carrying payloads weighing up to 300 kg.

The system includes the ESPA ring from Moog CSA Engineering, the QuadPack CubeSat deployer from Innovative Solutions in Space, LightBand as the separation system for non-containerized spacecraft from Planetary Systems Corporation, launch vehicle separation system from RUAG, and command and data handling subsystem from Andrews Space. The first mission that was scheduled for Q4 2018 was cancelled due to Falcon 9 delays. All of the SHERPA satellites were rebooked on different launches including Spaceflight’s dedicated SSO-A launch scheduled for September 2018. Although the SHERPA has never launched, it is fully functional and may be used in the future 13

To provide the capability to perform LEO altitude shifts, or maneuvers to a geosynchronous transfer orbit and trans-lunar injection orbits, the upcoming variants of the system will incorporate a propulsion system, solar arrays, and an Attitude Determination and Control System. The propulsion system will be able to supply a maximum of 2200 ms-1 dV for orbit change maneuvers. The solar arrays will be able to offer 50 W power to each of the five ports. The company is also planning to have multiple SHERPA rings on a single launch vehicle in the future 10.


Additionally, Moog has partnered with Orbital ATK to produce the ESPA Augmented Geostationary Laboratory Experiment (EAGLE) spacecraft. This spacecraft uses the ESPA SUM ring to carry CubeSat-sized experiments while having its own RF communications, ADCS and power generation. The EAGLE was launched on an Atlas V rocket on April 14, 2018 with five air force payloads attached 14.

Orbital and Suborbital Rides

Beyond launch or deployment of payloads into orbit, there are opportunities for customers who want to fly their experiment for a shorter duration on a suborbital flight or who want to recover their experiment after it is exposed to the space environment for a period of time. Various companies and systems have developed to serve these needs.

Nanoracks Internal Payloads

nanoracks Platform 3 image with centrifuge housing
Figure 10.19: NanoRacks Platform 3 image with centrifuge housing. Image Courtesy of Nanoracks.

NanoRacks offers an in-orbit system that provides payload opportunities on the International Space Station using the cubesat form factor. The company has different microgravity experiment opportunities at the U.S. National Lab on the ISS such as Nanohubs, NanoRacks Platform-3 (Figure 10.19), NanoRacks Centrifuge, NanoRacks Microscope, and NanoRacks MixStix. Each of these systems offer different test opportunities under microgravity conditions 41.

Nanoracks External Platform (NREP)

NanoRacks External Payload Platform
Figure 10.20: NanoRacks External Payload Platform. Image Courtesy of Nanoracks.

This system is able to accommodate up to nine 4U CubeSat-size payloads outside of the International Space Station, with direct exposure to the space environment, for a standard mission duration of fifteen weeks. Attached to ISS, the system allows for high data rates, access to station power and data, payload return, risk mitigation, and frequent service for its customers. It will be used for various applications such as sensor testing, biological testing, flight qualification, and materials testing. The NREP (Figure 10-20) was launched to the ISS in August 2015, August 2015, was operational starting early Spring 2016 15.

Terrestrial Return Vehicle (TRV)

Terrestrial Return Vehicle Concept
Figure 10.21: Terrestrial Return Vehicle Concept. Image Courtesy of Intuitive Machines.

The Terrestrial Return Vehicle (Figure 10.21) is a commercial service being developed by Intuitive Machines and NASA and aims to deliver payloads from the ISS back to Earth. The system is designed to be stored in the habitable volume of the ISS until required. When loaded up with its cargo, it will be deployed from the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) airlock and make a controlled reentry by using its guidance and propulsion systems. Finally the craft’s airfoil is deployed and it touches down at its designated spaceport. The first re-entry flight of the TRV from the ISS was scheduled for 2016 43, however the current status is unknown.

Dispensers for Cubesats

The cubesat form factor is a very common standard for spacecraft smaller than 10 kg and there exist well established dispensers and adaptors for them. The focus of this section is on integration systems conforming to the cubesat architecture. The dispensers are summarized in Table 10.3.

Table 10-3: Small Spacecraft Dispensers 
Product Manufacturer TRL Status
P-POD Spaceflight Industries 9
DPOD D-Orbit 6
T-POD University of Tokyo 9
X-POD UTIAS Space Flight Laboratory 9
J-SSOD Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) 9
Rocket POD Ecliptic Enterprises 9
NLAS NASA Ames Research Center 9
NPSCul Naval Postgraduate School 9
Canisterized Satellite Dispenser (CSD) Planetary Systems Corporation 9
AFT Bulkhead Carrier United Launch Alliance 9
C-adapter platform United Launch Alliance 9
Albapod Alba Orbital 6


The cubesat form lends itself to container based integration systems. While several systems exist, the standard deployer is the Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer, or P-POD.

Figure 10.22: P-POD.Image Courtesy of California Polytechnic State University.

The P-POD as seen in Figure 10.22 is a rectangular aluminum container which can hold up to 100 x 100 x 340 mm of deployable spacecraft, either three 1U cubesats or one 3U cubesat, or a mix of intermediate sizes. The container acts as a Faraday cage, so hosted payloads meet electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) standards. Deployment is achieved by a pusher plate and spring ejection system. The main driver spring is aligned with the central axis of the P-POD. If more than one spacecraft is loaded, additional spring plungers placed between cubesats are used to provide initial separation between payloads. The interior is anodized with a PTFE-impregnated solution to ensure smooth deployment. The tubular design of the P-POD prevents rotation of the cubesats during ejection, ensuring linear trajectories. The exit velocity of the cubesat is designed to be 1.6 ms-1, though the central spring may be replaced to achieve different exit velocities. Typically P-PODs are connected to a larger secondary payload interface and not directly to the launch vehicle.

P-POD, with TRL 9, had an extensive heritage on several launch vehicles (Atlas V, Delta II, TaurusXL, Minotaur I & IV, Falcon 1 & 9, Vega, Dnepr, Rokot) with the deployment of over one hundred cubesats with 100% success rate 14.

NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer (NRCSD)

Figure 10.23: NanoRacks cubesat Deployer. Image Courtesy of Nanoracks.

Nanoracks cubesat deployer (see Figure 10.23) is a system to deploy cubesats into orbit from the Japanese Experiment Module of International Space Station. The NRCSD is a rectangular tube that consists of anodized aluminum plates, base plate assembly, access panels, and deployer doors. The NRCSD deployer doors are located on the forward end, the base plate assembly is located on the aft end, and access panels are provided on the top. The cubesats are ejected using a spring and plunger combination at the rear of the deployer. Each NRCSD is capable of holding 6U of cubesats and the system is able to deploy 48U during a full airlock cycle 44,45.

Recently NanoRacks has been using a new dispenser to deploy CubeSats. This new dispenser is attached to the outside of the Cygnus service module and is named The NanoRacks External Cygnus Deployer (ENRCSD). This new deployer has successfully deployed 15 CubeSats 16.

Canisterized Satellite Dispenser (CSD)

Canisterized Satellite Dispenser
Figure 10.24: Canisterized Satellite Dispenser. Image Courtesy of Planetary Systems Corporation.

The Canisterized Satellite Dispenser (see Figure 10.24) is a deployment mechanism for small secondary or tertiary payloads developed by Planetary Systems Corporation. It supports 3U, 6U, 12U and 27U form factors within a range of 1-30 kg 47.

Nanosatellite Launch Adapter System (NLAS)

Figure 10.25: NLAS. Image Courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center.

NLAS, shown in Figure 10.25, was developed by NASA Ames Research Center and the Operationally Responsive Space Office of the United States Air Force. This is a secondary payload adapter system as well as a deployer. It is composed of a 6U deployer, an adapter structure and a sequencer. The NLAS adapter structure is able to deploy 24U of cubesats. The system is designed to accommodate spacecraft measuring 1U, 1.5U, 2U, 3U and 6U for deployment into orbit. Each dispenser can accommodate a total payload weight of up to 14 kg. To increase the number of secondary payloads, multiple NLAS wafers can be stacked on the launch vehicle.


Figure 10.26: Cubestakc. Image Courtesy of MOOG CSA Engineering, LoadPath.

CubeStack, developed by Moog CSA Engineering and LoadPath LLC, is similar to the NASA Ames Nanosatellite Launch Adapter System (NLAS) to launch cubesats in a wafer configuration. Like NLAS, CubeStack accommodates eight 3U dispensers, four 6U dispensers, or other combinations of 3U and 6U dispensers. CubeStack is compatible with the Minotaur, Athena, Taurus, Pegasus and Falcon launch vehicles. The dispenser can be seen in Figure 10.26 and was used during the ORS-3 mission in November 2013 48.

ESPA Six-U Mount (SUM)

Figure 10.27: ESPA SUM. Image Courtesy of Moog CSA Engineering.

The ESPA Six-U Mount, developed by Moog CSA Engineering, mounts a pair of 3U cubesats or a single 6U cubesat on an ESPA ring port, see Figure 10.27. The cubesats are tertiary payloads that share the port with a secondary spacecraft and deploy after secondary separation. One 6U or two 3Us can be deployed from each port. Up to six SUMs can be included on an ESPA ring.


Figure 10.28: FANTM-RiDE. Image Courtesy of MOOG CSA Engineering, TriSept Corporation.

The FANTM-RiDE small spacecraft dispenser is developed by TriSept Corporation and Moog CSA, see Figure 10.28. It aims to deploy cubesats from an ESPA ring compatible volume (610 x 610 x 710 mm). Both 3U and 6U spacecraft can be attached along interior dispenser walls, leaving space for a central spacecraft. It is compatible with multiple vehicles and adapters. It is designed to be mass tuned, meaning that it maintains the same mass properties regardless of its contents. This property allows for late schedule additions or removals from the launch schedule without affecting coupled load analyses. The integration services of the system is provided by TriSept Corporation 12.


Figure 10.29: Tyvak 6U Rail-POD Dispenser. Image Courtesy of Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems LLC.

The Rail-POD (Figure 10.29) is a dispenser developed by Tyvak to deploy 1U, 3U and 6U spacecraft, with a smaller mass penalty. Thus it is targeted at smaller launch vehicles with tighter mass margins.


Ecliptic Enterprises develops on-board imaging systems for use with rockets, spacecraft, and other remote platforms. However, the company also provides cost-effective space-access solutions for small space payloads. Rocket Pod carries cubesat secondary payloads on the exterior of rockets. The device may also be mounted on the interior of the payload fairing or on adapter ring such as ESPA or CAP. Ejection is achieved via a spring-loaded mechanism like the P-POD dispensers.

Japanese Experiment Module Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (J-SSOD)

The J-SSOD was the first dispenser to deploy small spacecraft from the International Space Station. It holds up to three 1U cubesats per case, six in total, though other sizes up to 550 x 550 x 350 mm size may also be used. The system is able to deploy 6U during a full airlock cycle. The first use of the system was performed in October 2012, deploying the RAIKO, FITSAT-1, WE WISH, NanoRacks cubesat-1/F-1 and TechEdSat cubesats.

Naval Postgraduate School Cubesat Launcher (NPSCuL)

NPSCuL and NPSCuL-Lite
Figure 10.30: NPSCuL and NPSCuL-Lite. Image Courtesy of Naval Postgraduate School.

The NPSCuL (shown in Figire 10.30) is an adapter that can attach multiple P-PODs to a single ESPA slot. There are two varieties of NPSCuL, Standard and Lite. NPSCuL-Standard has ten slots for 3U or 5U dispensers. Additionally 6U dispensers can be accommodated by using two adjacent 3U slots. NPSCuL-Lite has eight slots which can similarly accommodate 3U or 6U dispensers.


Figure 10.31: ISIPOD. Image Courtesy of ISIS.

ISIPOD (see Figure 10.31), developed by ISIS, is a launch adapter for small spacecraft that adheres to the cubesat interface standard. The system is able to deploy 1U, 2U, 3U, 6U, and 12U cubesats 17.


DPOD. Image Courtesy of D-Orbit

DPOD, shown in Figure 10-32, is a CubeSat launch adapter developed by D-Orbit. It can be configured in many different sizes from 3U up to 16U satellites and is built to deploy from the ISS. As part of their DPOD launch service, D-Orbit will provide everything from launch acquisition to payload integration and deployment. DPOD will be flown in Q3 2019 and as such is TRL 6 .


D-Orbit has also developed an independent CubeSat carrier named ION. Seen in Figure 10-33, ION has its own power, attitude control, thermal control, and command and data handling subsystem. ION has the capability to hold up to 48U of CubeSats on one time with a density of 2kg/U. ION also uses a “Fast Dispersion” technique to decrease the deployment time of CubeSat constellations by 85%. ION will fly in Q3 of 2019 and has a TRL of 6  .

ION. Image Courtesy of D-Orbit.


Figure 10.33: XPOD. Image Courtesy of UTIAS/SFL.

X-POD, shown in Figure 10.32, was developed by University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies Space Flight Laboratory and is a cubesat deployer for 1U, 2U, and 3U cubesats. The maiden flight of the system was 2008 on a PSLV launch.


Figure 10 35: Albapod holding 2P PocketQube. Image Courtesy of Alba Orbital.

For PocketQubes, Alba Orbital have developed a 6P and a 96P deployer that is capable of holding 2 to 30 3P units respectively (see Complete Spacecraft Platforms for more about PocketQubes). The Albapod uses a flight proven release mechanism to ensure performance in-orbit and plans to be launched in 2019 on a UniSat-7 microsatellite on a Dnepr rocket.

PSL-P Satellite Launch Pack

There are several cubesat deployer options at Astro-und Feinwerktechnik Adlershof GmbH called the CubeSat Deployer PSL family: the single picosatellite launcher (SPL), Double Picosatellite Launcher (DPL) and Triple Picosatellite Launcher (TPL). These deployers have 1U, 2U and 3U combinations and have all been space proven in LEO since 2013 18. Recently, they have developed a multi-deployment mechanism for CubeSats call the PSL-P Picosatellite Launch Pack that can hold a total CubeSat mass of 20 kg in various configurations from 1U, 2U, 3U to 12U. Additionally, this dispenser has been demonstrated during a parabolic flight test with (at least) four PocketQube sized spacecraft.

Other Adapters for Small Spacecraft

Non-cubesat payloads have fewer available integration systems since integration systems in this class are usually custom designed for specific missions. This section lists the available larger adapters for small spacecraft.

EELV Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA)

espa ring
Figure 10.34: ESPA Ring. Image Courtesy of Moog CSA Engineering.
Figure 10.35: ESPA Grande Ring. Image Courtesy of Moog CSA Engineering, Orbcomm.

The ESPA ring in Figure 10.34 is a multi-payload adapter for large primary spacecraft and six auxiliary spacecraft with a twenty four inch port diameter developed by Moog CSA. It can support six payloads up to 318 kg each. It was used for the first time for the STP-1 mission in 2007. The LRO/LCROSS (2009), OG2 Constellation 1 (2014) and AFSPC-4 (2014) and OG2 Constellation 2 (2015) missions followed. The ESPA Grande (Figure 10.35) is a fifteen-inch version of the ESPA adapter. It can carry four 181 kg payloads.

AFT Bulkhead Carrier (ABC)

Figure 10.36: ABC. Image Courtesy of National Reconnaissance Office.

When redesigning the Atlas V Centaur upper stage pressure system, the Office of Space Launch (OSL) replaced three helium tanks with two larger tanks leaving a volume of 508 x 508 x 762 mm at the aft end of the upper stage. OSL seized the opportunity to convert this excess volume into secondary payload space. This location offers several advantages despite its proximity to the upper stage thruster. In particular, the secondary payload is completely isolated from the primary, thereby relaxing electromagnetic interference and contamination concerns of the primary payload. The adapter carries up to 80 kg by utilizing the plate and struts previously used to house the helium tank. ABC (see Figure 10.36), which made its first flight in 2010, can launch up to twenty four cubesats to orbit.

C-Adaptor Platform (CAP)

Figure 10.37: CAP. Image Courtesy of ULA.

The C-Adapter Platform (Figure 10.37), developed by Adaptive Launch Solutions, is a cantilevered platform capable of carrying up to 45 kg in a volume of 230 x 310 x 330 mm. The platform is attached to a C-adapter ring via a 203 mm clampband and is compatible with Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles. C-rings, mounted in the forward adapter of the Centaur upper stage, are essentially large aluminum rings used as an interface between payload integration systems and ground support equipment. Four CAPs can be integrated per C-adapter. Each cap has a carrying capacity of 90 kg. The first flight of the system was in 2010.


Figure 10.38: AQUILA. Image Courtesy of ULA.

The Aquila adapter (Figure 10.38), developed by Adaptive Launch Systems, is able to support a primary payload mass of up to 6350 kg. It can be used with Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles.

Separation Systems

MkII Motorized Lightband
Figure 10.39: MkII Motorized Lightband. Image Courtesy of Planetary Systems Corporation.

While many separation systems like the POD deployers make use of a compressed spring mechanism, band systems are also quite common. Lightband and Marman clamp separation systems are widely used, particularly for larger spacecraft. Lightband shown in Figure 10.39, is a motorized separation system that ranges from 203 mm to 965 mm in diameter. Smaller Lightband systems are used to deploy ESPA class spacecraft, while larger variations may be used to separate the entire ESPA ring itself. Lightband’s motorized separation system eliminates the need for pyrotechnic separation, and thus deployment results in lower shock and no post-separation debris. Marman band separation systems use energy stored in a clamp band, often along with springs, to achieve separation. The Marman band is tensioned to hold the payload in place. Sierra Nevada produces a Marman band separation system known as Qwksep, which uses a series of separation springs to help deploy the payload after clamp band release. Depending on the launch vehicle, separation systems may already be in place and available to secondary payloads.

On The Horizon

Dedicated Launchers for Small Spacecraft

As the capabilities and numbers of small spacecraft increase, the traditional ride-share or piggyback approaches become less and less convenient. The surge in demand for launch opportunities has also stimulated the development of dedicated launchers for them. Although many are still in low TRLs, there are at least projects started in the recent years which aim to carry small spacecraft. Since 2015, two launch vehicles have moved to the state of the art with Bloostar receiving a prototype flight and Electron launching successfully. Similar to the state of the art section, the launch vehicles with LEO capacity of 500 kg and less are considered in this section of the report and are summarized in Table 10.4.

AU Launch Services

AU Launch Services, found in 2015, is an Adelaide-based Australian consulting group that works as an integrator between cubesat manufacturers and overseas launch providers.

Austral Launch Vehicle-2

Austral Launch Vehicle Concept
Figure 10.40: Austral Launch Vehicle Concept. Image Courtesy of Heliaq Advanced Engineering.
Austral Launch Vehicle Concept
Figure 10.41: Austral Launch Vehicle Concept. Image Courtesy of Heliaq Advanced Engineering.

The Austral Launch Vehicle (ALV) (Figure 10.40 and Figure 10.41)  is a partially reusable small spacecraft launch vehicle family. The project has been in development since 2011. The ALV project consists of the development of four progressively more complex and expensive vehicles, starting from ALV-0 with ALV-3 being the commercial launch vehicle. The ALV is planned to launch vertically and after stage separation will deploy a swiveling, oblique wing and a nose-mounted piston engine, flying back to the launch site as a large UAV. The ALV-2 design is modular by utilizing various combinations of boosters and upper stages, it will be capable to accommodate 3U (with one booster) to 27 U (with 6 boosters) payloads. The payload accommodation will conform to the Planetary Systems’ Canisterised Satellite Dispenser (CSD) specifications. First flight of the ALV-0 small-scale test vehicle was held in December 2015. The ALV-2 vehicle is currently in the conceptual design phase and the first orbital flight of this version is expected in 2018-2019. The company is running several other projects in parallel including the development of the LOX/Methane rocket engines.

Aurora S

Aurora is a family of launch vehicles under development by Conspire Technology, an Alabama based company, founded in 2013. The family is planned to consist of three members: Aurora S, Aurora X, and Aurora Air. Aurora S is the two-stage small launch vehicle currently being developed to launch small spacecraft to orbit, whose first stage will be an air-breathing engine. The system is planned to reach hypersonic velocities below 30 km altitude with no on-board oxidizer. Aurora S development is currently in the design and development phase on the system level. Propulsion system hot firing tests has been planned between 2017 and 2019, and the flight testing is estimated to begin in 2022 although there is no status update. The company estimates to begin launch services in 2025 for a launch cost of $4M. The technologies developed and demonstrated through Aurora S will then be scaled up for more powerful vehicles, Aurora X and Aurora Air, with greater payload capacity. The TRL of the system is 2-3 51.

Dedicated Nano Launch Vehicle (DNLV)

The DNLV in Figure 10.43 is a launch vehicle under consideration by Independence-X Aerospace located in Malaysia. The vehicle is planned to carry a 100 kg payload to a 500 km SSO. The first flight of the system is planned for 2023. The TRL of the system is 2 52.

Figure 10.43: DNLV Concept. Image Courtesy of Independence-X Aerospace.


CubeCab is a new company which aims to provide launches specifically for 1U and 3U cubesats to 400 km polar orbit. The system will be released from an F-104 jet. The company aspires to launch 100 CubeSats per year by 2023. The company is currently manufacturing their components, therefore the TRL of the system is 4 19.


The Dream Chaser in Figure 10-44, was developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation Space Systems and has been developed for both crew and cargo transportation to LEO. The vehicle will also be able to support satellite servicing and deployment missions. On November 11th, 2017, the Dream Chaser completed a successful glide test. The craft was released from an altitude of 3,700m and landed at Edwards AFB 20

dream chaser
Figure 10.45: Dream Chaser Concept. Image Courtesy of Sierra Nevada Corporation.


Firefly Alpha

FireFly Space Systems is a private aerospace firm based in Austin, Texas that intends to launch small and medium-sized spacecraft to orbit. Their design, Firefly Alpha (Figure 10.47) is an all-composite vehicle designed to launch 400 kg payloads to LEO or 200 kg payloads to SSO. The system is propelled with two nearly-identical liquid (LOX/methane) stages. The first stage contains ten identical engine cores, which facilitates mass production 55. The vehicle is slated for its first orbital launch in 2018 which will be followed by four more. The company aims to have twelve additional launches in 2019. The upgraded version, Firefly-β (Firefly Beta), to be introduced at a later date, will use two strap-on boosters. Firefly Alpha is one of the three systems which has awarded by NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) for cubesat missions to LEO.

Figure 10.47: Firefly Alpha Concept. Image Courtesy of Firefly Space Systems.

GOLauncher 2

GOLauncher 2 in Figure 10.48 was developed by Generation Orbit Launch Services and is an air launched two-stage rocket system using LOX/RP-1 as propellants. The system will be capable of placing payloads of up to 45 kg into LEO at 0° to 98.7° inclination. The system uses a Gulfstream business jet to carry its rocket up into high altitudes. A date for the first launch has not been set yet 56,57.

Figure 10.48: GOLauncher System mounted underneath a Gulfstream jet. Image Courtesy of Generation Orbit.

Haas 2C

The Haas 2C launch vehicle (see Figure 10.49), currently under development by Arca Space Corporation, is a two-stage system both fueled with liquid oxygen and kerosene. The company was originally established in 1999 as a non-profit organization in Romania. In 2004, as part of the Ansari X-Prize Competition, it successfully launched its first rocket. ARCA selected Spaceport America as their launch site and launch activities are scheduled to start in 2016 58,59. However, in December 2016 Arca received a 3.4 million dollar contract and in return they changed the engine to a linear aerospike and renamed the rocket from the Haas 2C to the Haas 2CA 21.

Figure 10.49: Haas 2C System. Image Courtesy of Arca Space Corporation.


Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne development began in mid-2012, see Figure 10.50. The system, once released from its carrier Boeing 747 aircraft, will use two rocket engines for its orbital flights: “NewtonThree” main stage engine, and “NewtonFour” upper stage engine. The company has already performed a 90 second hot firing of the NewtonThree engine. Virgin Galactic recently increased the launch capacity of the system to 400 kg to LEO and 200 kg to SSO 61. LauncherOne is one of the three systems which has awarded by NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) for cubesat missions to LEO and the company expects to begin orbital flight tests by 2017 62. LauncherOne is one of the three systems which has awarded by NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) for cubesat missions to LEO. In June 2018, the LauncherOne system performed a series of test flights to study the aerodynamic characterizes of the LauncherOne pylon that will be used to carry the rocket on upcoming flight tests


Figure 10.50: LauncherOne. Image Courtesy of Virgin Galactic.

Lynx Mark III

lynx mark III
Figure 10.51: Lynx Mark III Concept. Image Courtesy of XCOR.

XCOR Aerospace develops the Lynx family of vehicles. Lynx, shown in Figure 10.51, is a piloted, two-seat, fully reusable liquid rocket-powered vehicle that takes-off and lands horizontally. The Lynx Mark III system is an advanced version of this system which will carry an external top-mounted dorsal pod that can hold upper stages capable of inserting a small spacecraft into LEO. The pod will be able to deliver a 10-15 kg payload to 400 km circular orbit at 28°  inclination.

The company is planning to initiate flight tests for Lynx Mark I prototype in 2016. Several technologies for Mark III will be demonstrated during these tests. Specifically for Mark III, analysis and experimental results verifying key predictions have been conducted, therefore the TRL of the system is 3 64 .

Microsat Launch Vehicle (VLM-1)

A partnership between Brazil and the German Space Agency (DLR) aims to develop a rocket for launching payloads of 150 kg into equatorial and polar orbits. The system, the VLM-1, is planned to have three stages of solid rocket motors 65. There are no estimated date for the system’s first launch. The first test flight of the system is planned for 2019.


Developed by the Japanese aerospace company Interstellar Technologies, the MOMO rocket is intended to serve as a mid-altitude sounding rocket. It is planned to reach heights of 100 km with the payload then deploying a parachute to return back to Earth. Unfortunately, the first two launches of the MOMO rocket have been failures. Interstellar Technologies is continuing to develop this rocket 22. The TRL of the system is 4.


M-OV (see Figure 10.53) is an orbital launch vehicled developed by the Miami-based MISHAAL Aerospace Corporation founded in 2010. The vehicle intends to deliver spacecraft in 363 kg to 454 kg class to LEO 67.

Figure 10.53: M-OV. Image Courtesy of MISHALL Aerosapace Corporation.

Neptune N5

The Neptune Modular Series are launch systems developed by Interorbital Systems. Different members of the family are assembled from identical Common Propulsion Modules (CPMs). A single CPM is able to lift 145 kg to 310 km apogee on sub-orbital trajectory for $350,000 for dedicated launch. The CPM test vehicle has been successfully flight-tested on low altitude flights in 2018. These flights carried several commercial payloads. The high altitude test flights are scheduled for Fall 2018 23.

Figure 10.55: N5 Concept. Image Courtesy of Interorbital Systems.

The N5, seen in Figure 10-50 is an orbital launch vehicle with five CPMs and able to lift a 30 kg payload to a circular polar orbit of 310 km. The first orbital launch is scheduled for Q4 2016 with a price tag of $1M for a dedicated launch. The N7 is a four-stage launch vehicle assembled from seven CPMs and a solid upper stage. It has a maximum payload capacity of 60 kg to a polar, circular orbit of 310 km. Interorbital plans currently does not have an established launch date for the N5 69.

North Star Launch Vehicle (NSLV)

In January 2013, Nammo and the Andøya Rocket Range spaceport announced that they will be developing a three stage orbital cubesat launch vehicle system called North Star, in Figure 10.56, that will use a hybrid motor, clustered in different numbers and arrangements, and will be able to deliver a 20-25 kg spacecraft into 250-350 km polar orbit. TThe first flight of NSLV is scheduled to take place in 2021 from Andøya Rocket Range, Norway 24,25.

Figure 10.56: NorthStar Concept. Image Courtesy of Nammo AS.

Sagitarius Airborne Launch System (SALS)

Celestia Aerospace, located in Barcelona, is developing the airborne Sagitarius Launch System. The system will be composed of the Mig-29UB jets as carrier planes and the SpaceArrow rockets for the orbital injection phase. Each launch will be able to lift sixteen 1U sized cubesats to space, either in a configuration of four cubesats aboard a SpaceArrow SM rocket, or in a configuration of sixteen cubesats aboard a single SpaceArrow CM rocket. The rocket will then deliver the payloads into orbits between 400 and 600 km altitude. Celestia intends to perform its maiden flight in 2016 from a Spanish airport 71.  Celestia originally intended to perform its maiden flight in 2016 from a Spanish airport but was pushed back to a unannounced later date 26.


The system is under development by Ventions LLC for DARPA’s SALVO program. It will be capable of launching a single 5 kg 3U cubesat at a time. The rocket will be carried to the required altitude with a F-15 jet.


soar shuttle
Figure 10.57: SOAR shuttle atop Airbus A300. Image Courtesy of S3.

Swiss Space Systems (S3) is a company which plans to provide orbital launches of miniaturized spacecraft and manned suborbital spaceflights. The airborne system will lift small spacecraft up to 250 kg payloads atop an A300 jetliner, Figure 10.57. Once released from the plane, the suborbital reusable shuttle will carry its payload to an altitude of 700 km. The first flight of the system is planned in 2018 to carry the CleanSpace One spacecraft which will possibly be the first active debris-removal mission performed 73.

Stratolaunch Air Launch System

Figure 10.58: Stratolaunch Air Launch System. Image Courtesy of Stratolaunch Systems.

The Stratolaunch Air Launch System (Figure 10-52) includes a carrier aircraft, a launch vehicle and integration system. The aircraft segment, which will be the largest aircraft ever built with its wingspan of 127 m, will be powered by six Boeing 747 engines to lift a multi-stage rocket up to 10 km. The production of this segment by Scaled Composites is ongoing and the plane completed its first high speed taxi test in 2018. For the rocket segment, Vulcan Aerospace has selected Northrup Grumman Innovation systems 27.


Vector Launch Inc. is also developing a higher power version of their Vector-R rocket. This rocket, known as the Vector-H has a higher payload capacity. It has the ability to lift 160 kg to 200 km and 95 kg to 450 km. The Vector-H uses 6 of the same LP-1 engines that the Vector-R uses and has had tested 28.


The Vulcan rocket in Figure 10-53 is a launch vehicle currently under development by United Launch Alliance (ULA). The vehicle will be powered by the BE-4 rocket engine currently under development with Blue Origin and solid rocket boosters to be provided by Orbital ATK. The company plans to integrate an inflatable aerodynamic decelerator and parachutes to its first-stage boosters which will allow midair capture and recovery of the boosters by a helicopter. The system is scheduled to have its maiden flight in 2020 29. According to ULA, the Vulcan can replace company’s Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles in 2020s.

Figure 10.59: Vulcan. Image Courtesy of ULA.

Payload Adaptors and Orbital Maneuvering Systems

Multi-payload Utility Lite Electric (MULE) Stage

mule stage
Figure 10.61: MULE Stage. Image Courtesy of ULA.

The MULE Stage in Figure 10-54, was developed jointly by Busek Space Propulsion, Adaptive Launch Solutions, and Oakman Aerospace and is a maneuvering system based on an ESPA ring. The system, with its onboard propulsion and power systems, will be capable of providing 10 ms-1 dV to deliver four 180 kg payloads to a variety of orbits and Earth Escape missions. The Stage is continuing development under ULA and the TRL is currently 3 30.


Figure 10.62: Hatchbasket. Image Courtesy of Altius Space Machines.

The HatchBasket, developed by Altius Space Machines partnering with Nanoracks, is a concept that enables small spacecraft (up to forty 3U cubesats from one ESPA-class spacecraft) to be launched to a higher altitude than is possible from normal ISS deployments and can be seen in Figure 10-55. The HatchBasket, as the name suggests, would replace the conventional hatch. After the Cygnus cargo vehicle completes its mission at the ISS, it would maneuver to a higher altitude using propellant reserved for contingencies during the approach to the station, then deploy the payloads. Cygnus could go up to altitudes of 500 km and still have enough propellant for deorbiting. There has been little development of HatchBasket in recent years. The TRL of the concept is currently 3.

Payload Assist Module for GSLV (PAM-G)

The PAM-G, under development by Indian Space Research Organisation, will be capable of lifting payloads to higher orbits after its separation from GSLV. It will be powered by a hypergolic liquid motor with restart capability, derived from PSLV’s fourth stage.


A wide variety of integration and deployment systems exist to provide rideshare opportunities for small spacecraft on existing launch vehicles. While leveraging excess payload space will continue to be profitable into the future, dedicated launch vehicles and new integration systems are becoming popular to fully utilize the advantages provided by small spacecraft. Dedicated launch vehicles may be used to take advantage of rapid iteration and mission design flexibility, enabling small spacecraft to dictate mission parameters. New integration systems will greatly increase the mission envelope of small spacecraft riding as secondary payloads. Advanced systems may be used to host secondary payloads on orbit to increase mission lifetime, expand mission capabilities, and enable orbit maneuvering. In the future these technologies may yield exciting advances in space capabilities.

For Feedback solicitation, please email: arc-sst-soa@mail.nasa.gov. Please include a business email so someone may contact you further.

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