As the brilliant launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon a couple of weeks ago started a new era in commercial manned spaceflight, two less visible and nerdy space missions — successful launches of Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) and NASA’s Mars Cube One project — started a new era in the satellite industry and became great milestones in space exploration.
Once the technology is adopted, a huge thing will happen, we are going to wake up in a different world. People will change and we will be in a completely different environment than we are now.
MEV-1: Mission extension vehicle to create competition in space
MEV-1 is a Northrop Grumman project of the first on the orbit of the Earth satellite life extension vehicle. It was launched on a Proton launch vehicle to dock with the Intelsat IS-901 geostationary satellite and extend its life-time for another couple of years. MEV-1 uses its own thrusters to provide station keeping and guidance for the satellite.
What is really special about the mission? It was the first time this kind of robotic operation actually brought significant benefits for the commercial satellite operator.
Second chance for satellite missions
Reality is such that all these geostationary communication satellites go up in space for 12, 15 or even more years. Launching of a comm satellite to a geostationary orbit is a very expensive project that costs hundreds of millions of dollars. Of course, these satellites are designed to be really robust. They have to survive in the harsh environment of the geostationary orbit for more than a thousand years.
Financing such a project is a really complex game of banks, insurance companies and even governments using different financial instruments. And because they have to be leveraged financially, they really start to generate profit for the operator sometime in the second half of their lifetime.
This means that the last years of operation are actually when the satellite generates cash for its owner. If there is a way of extending the period of the satellite’s lifetime that is beyond where the satellite has already paid back all its financial leverage, then it actually means pure profit for the operator company.
Pure cash for satellite operators
It’s like extending the lifetime of an airplane. It’s pure cash. The more you operate the airplane, the more cash it generates. When you’ve paid off all the loans and leverages for the airplane, it generates pure profit for you.
If satellite lifetime extension will become a routine operation, it will create competition in space. Looks like all future geostationary satellites are to have a standard interface for such operations, and for fueling operations as well.
The MarCO CubeSats to make space missions affordable
The MarCO CubeSats were launched together with the InSight Mars lander. This is a pair of two 6U CubeSats. They traveled together with the InSight and made a flyby of Mars. They were non-critical to the InSight lander mission, but they were serving a complementary goal of relaying the transmission from the lander as it descended through the atmosphere to the surface of Mars, instead of relaying the signal through the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In this case, they gave us almost a live stream – of course, with a slight time delay – of the landing event in a sequence of the InSight lander.
What’s so special about this mission? Well, the CubeSats became really popular among the commercial operators and universities in LEO partially because they are cheap. And they are cheap because they can use commercial off-the-shelf electronics that can survive in LEO.
CubeSats can do it
And then there was this bold vision going like ‘hey, why don’t we test the same or slightly more robust electronics in a deep-space radiation environment?’ So, how long will they survive? Will they be feasible, etc.?
The problem is that there aren’t that many commercial applications for them, and it is quite expensive to hitch a ride on a deep-space rocket. The Marco CubeSats marked the first time that NASA, or to be more precise, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), spent less than $20 million to launch CubeSats to deep space, to Mars. And they worked out flawlessly! This really proves the hypothesis that you can do a deep space mission for less than $20 million per the whole project.
Talking about perspectives, Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle can launch up to 25 kg of sensors, equal to a big CubeSat, or a pair of big CubeSats, to Venus or Mars orbit, or to asteroids in the asteroid belt. Those would likely be fly-by missions, but you can play with that. The launch of the Electron to deep space will roughly cost less than 10 million dollars because you have to have the kick stage. The CubeSats have more robust electronics and some special shielding, so I assume they may cost 5 or 6 million a pair.
Asteroid belt space mission vs. new skyscraper
Imagine that you suddenly have $15 million for an asteroid mission or a space science mission. That’s really affordable, and you can hitch your own ride to space on the Electron launch vehicle. You can really use most of the commercial off-the-shelf electronics. You can spend $15 million dollars and two or three years to develop a mission that will prosper an asteroid or launch a private space science mission to the orbit of Venus or the asteroid belt. It costs less than building yet another skyscraper!
Looking forward to the CAPSTONE mission by NASA that will be launching a CubeSat to lunar orbit. Again, that will be another sign that space exploration becomes really affordable, we have to do that.
Check out more interesting posts from Precious Payload if you want to learn about more milestones in commercial space exploration: