NASA has signed up three US-based launch start-ups to fly a series of CubeSat missions, due to fly in 2017 and 2018, to provide the agency with a dedicated route to orbit for the tiny satellites.

Rocket Lab USA, based in Los Angeles, and Firefly Space Systems of Texas are both developing vertical launch systems. Virgin Galactic is set to fly some of the missions with its air-launched rocket, LauncherOne.

This first tranche of Venture Class launch contracts, valued at $17.15 million – $6.95 million to Rocket Lab, $5.5 million to Firefly and $4.7 million to Virgin – may be followed by further small satellite contracts, says NASA. The agency said the price of each flight, which can orbit 15 to 30 CubeSats, “is one-tenth the cost of the least-expensive traditional launcher”.

Director of NASA’s earth science division, Dr Michael Freilich, said that increasingly capable CubeSats and other very small platforms “could revolutionise out science-based spaceborne Earth-observing systems”. Increasingly powerful electronics mean that CubeSats – which can be built economically by students, scientists and small companies around standard-sized 10cm by 10cm frames – are becoming powerful tools for researching in-orbit capabilities, and even direct imaging of the Earth or space environments.

But these small spacecraft remain subject to the costs and long timetables of a launch industry geared around orbiting big, expensive payloads. Typically they must fly as secondary, or ‘piggyback’, payloads, but a shortage of secondary launch slots mean that there is a backlog of more than 50 missions in the next three years, NASA has said.

Also, secondary payload CubeSats are typically dumped into orbit at the convenience of the main mission – but their increasing sophistication calls for more precise deployment.

Virgin Galactic expects a first test flight of its air-launched system – which runs off of the same carrier aircraft that will fly its passenger-carrying SpaceShipTwo suborbital rocketplane – before mid-2017. It won its first contract earlier in 2015, for 39 flights and 100 options from UK-based OneWeb, which plans to orbit 900 Airbus Defence & Space-built microsatellites of less than 150kg (331lb) each in order to provide affordable broadband internet to rural areas around the world from 2019. Arianespace Soyuz rockets will orbit the bulk of the OneWeb constellation.

RocketLab signed a contract on 1 October with Moon Express for three flights to the Moon, starting in 2017. Those flights are part of a bid to win the Google Lunar XPRIZE for the first private mission to the Earth’s satellite.

In September, Firefly first tested the liquid oxygen and methane, or RP-1, engine that will power its two-stage Alpha rockets.