Small satellites pioneer Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) used last month’s International Astronautical Congress in Beijing to launch its latest bid to slash manufacturing and launch costs with a new platform of just 50kg – half the mass of the platforms that have for a decade made up its successful Disaster Monitoring Constellation for Earth observation.
The SSTL-X50 is designed for deployment in constellations, to give operators rapid revisit of any point on the ground, and can accommodate mapping, true colour, and high resolution imaging payloads.
SSTL sees constellations as a good alternative to single, more expensive platforms for some missions. Total mission costs could be lower with such a constellation on the principle that smaller and lighter is always cheaper, to manufacture and to launch.
The new small platform wasn’t designed with any particular launcher in mind, as launcher options being proposed to provide relatively low-cost launches on short lead times for small payloads are still early in development. But a new generation of small, flexible launchers is needed to bust open the market for platforms like X50. Historically, high launch costs and the long lead times needed to book a flight to orbit have worked against the economics of small satellites.
Virgin Galactic boss Richard Branson made a splash at the 2012 Farnborough air show when he announced that the company was developing a rocket to be air-launched by the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft that carries his in-development suborbital SpaceShipTwo to 50,000ft for release. LauncherOne is being designed to carry, for less than $10 million per launch, payloads of up to 225kg to low inclination low Earth orbit and up to 100kg to near-polar Sun-synchronous orbits, ideal for Earth observation missions.
Several customers have already signed for launches, expected to begin in 2016, and SSTL and Sierra Nevada Space Systems are understood to be designing satellites for the launcher.
SSTL says it has no reason to believe that a vehicle like LauncherOne wouldn’t be a good fit for satellites built on the X50 platform.