Monday, August 15, 2011

Thoughts on small sat and cube sat market size.

I went to Small sat last week. I'd never been to that conference and it is clearly a conference where people are actually building things. I went with the goal of answering one specific question:

"If I offered a dedicated 3U launch capability to any orbit < 600Km for 500K per launch how many would I launch a year?"

I asked this question over and over to government, vendors, academics and anyone that would take the time to discuss it with me.

I got answers varying from 0 to 500/yr.

I think the real answer will eventually be 20 or more launches a year. If the question is changed to 20Kg and 1M I get the sense the number of launches would actually go up.This is a SWAG (Sophisticated wild ass guess) its hard to generate a better answer because of the uncertainty hovering over the whole community.
At this conference Spacex announced commercial 2nd ary pricing of 200K to 325K for a 3U, giving some validity to my swag. The number of small sats launched is clearly undergoing growth, maybe even exponential growth. The problem is the people building the cube sats are not really paying for their own launches. They all have sponsors that are giving away secondary space on existing launches. The majority of people with real $$ to spend (IE DOD ) still think that the cube sats are toys, and the most forward thinking DOD people see them as marginally useful experimental vehicles.

Given just those facts I would have to conclude that today there is not a viable cubesat market.
The elephant in the room is that EVERY one I talked to has funding uncertainty.

All the program managers all say they have all these interesting plans that will happen as soon as the budget is resolved and they get their expected xx% increase, just like they got xx% last year and the year before. Not a single DOD, NASA or other government entity even acknowledged the possibility that they might see a significant reduction in funding. Collectivly they are either in denial or blind.

While today the university cube sats rely on the significant crumbs from larger programs, they are in fact demonstarating real usefulness. When the reality of the current long term funding sinks in to the smart and nimble among the program offices they will be forced to consider 5M cube sat programs as opposed to 100M conventional programs.

I see the next 5 years in the small sat space to be really volatile and chaotic. 5 to 10 years from now there will be a well funded thriving small sat/ cube sat market that could easily support several dedicated launchers. I just can't see what the details of this transformation will look like over the next 5 years.

How is that for a long and rambling non-answer.


heroineworshipper said...

It's all heading to avatars the size of a grain of rice, that transmit all 5 senses to humans on Earth.

Whamodyne said...

So then Paul, is the plan to take those 5 years and slowly develop a smallsat launcher, with maybe a payout here and there on the way but basically waiting for the market to settle down and then beat a path to your launcher?

Charles Pooley said...

The future lies not with an extrapolation from the present but with a phase change, a discontinuity, as happened with the advent of the microcomputer.

They were not just cheaper minicomputers. They were new and revolutionary.

So can it be in space exploration. An analog of the advent of Altair and its kind is now possible and, I hope, at hand.

Henry Vanderbilt said...

I tend to agree with Charles - we're looking at an impending state change in this market. In significant part because the benefits available from a given nanosat are growing fast as the available cubesat hardware capabilities are improved.

Of course this isn't at all in conflict with Paul's obervations; the growing (albeit uncertain) nanosat-launch demand pull he's seeing is a sign that the change is getting closer.

The other major factor I see is the growing understanding that the capability to meet that demand in the price ballpark Paul outlines will soon likely (albeit again not certainly) be on the market.

Growing awareness of impending capability will grow demand, and vice-versa. Factor in the growing capabilities of the sats themselves and at some point the curve of that process will go non-linear.

Someone who wanted to bet on that point arriving sooner rather than later (in part because they'd be helping precipitate the change) might want to hedge their bet by looking at a vehicle configuration that could meet both markets Paul describes, 3U/$500K and 10kg/$1m.

The obvious way to do that seems to me a basic stack that will handle a 3U, with provision to cluster 2-3 of the basic first stages (depending on how the numbers work) to handle slightly larger payloads.

heroineworshipper said...

Well, Wayne Hale's latest blog post hints that the CCDEV program is going to be canceled in favor of Soyuz. A lot of large crumbs are about to disappear. said...

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