NASA selects small businesses to build nanosatellite launchers

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NASA has selected small businesses to receive up to $38.7 million in grants for innovative technology developments, including a number of technologies relating to nanosatellite launch vehicles.

One grantee intends to mature a vehicle currently used for suborbital launches to a full-size nanosatellite launch vehicle, the Garvey 10/250, which would - as the name suggests - launch a 10kg (22lb) payload into a 250km (155mi) low Earth orbit. A further planned development would increase the launch vehicle's capabilities to 20kg and 450km.

A similar grantee is Ventions LLC, which intends to build a new two-stage nanosatellite launch vehicle. NASA is interested in developing the Rocket Propellant-1 (RP-1)/liquid oxygen first stage engine. "Ventions has already completed several component-level demonstrations in the area, and is proposing additional optimization/testing," says NASA.

Nanosatellites are a market that barely existed ten years ago, but driven by advances in computing technology and capable launch vehicles have become a major realm of experimentation. They are often built by research universities or scientific institutions for one-off experiments that can be done relatively inexpensively. Governments, particularly the US government, have been involved in building nanosatellites for "operationally-responsive space" missions, where basic satellite capability is required but not deemed worthy of dedicating time on the large in-orbit satellites.

NASA awards similar grants annually.