STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

Rocket Lab just got a leg up on the race to launch tiny satellites

A satellite startup just signed a first of its kind deal that it hopes will bring it more business in the red-hot sma...

Posted: Apr 18, 2018 3:15 AM
Updated: Apr 18, 2018 3:15 AM

A satellite startup just signed a first of its kind deal that it hopes will bring it more business in the red-hot small satellite market.

York Space Systems announced Tuesday that it signed a contract with Rocket Lab, a California and New Zealand-based startup that aced its first-ever rocket launch in January. The companies plan to streamline and reduce the cost of getting a small satellite to space.

York and Rocket Lab want to upend the current system, which takes months for satellites to undergo what's called "mission integration" - tests and retrofitting to ensure a satellite can fly safely aboard a rocket.

Their partnership will eliminate that process by doing all the integration work up front, making it easier and cheaper for a company to purchase a York satellite and get it to space on a Rocket Lab vehicle.

"The space industry has always been really fragmented," Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told CNNMoney. "So, in order to really reduce the time frame from idea to orbit, [you have to think of the satellite] and rocket as a marriage."

This agreement is the first of its kind and could provide a window into what's to come for the small satellite industry and a new era of ultra-cheap launches.

The back story

Throughout history, launching objects into space has involved lengthy time frames and many millions of dollars.

The cumbersome process has made space inaccessible to companies and research groups that would otherwise find it useful to send up their own data-collection or communications satellites.

As technology has evolved, small satellites that are cheaper and more capable have come onto the market.

But those satellites still need rockets to get to orbit. And today's rockets aren't built for lightweights.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, for example, can deliver hefty telecommunications or military satellites into distant orbits. The rocket has a bargain sticker price of $62 million and can hoist more than 50,000 pounds into space.

Related: Meet Rocket Lab, the newest player in the global space industry

Small satellites headed for Low-Earth Orbit can tag along on Falcon 9 launches, but they'll be a secondary payload. And with high demand for getting small satellites into space, there's no telling when a hitchhiking opportunity will arise.

But a number of commercial space startups have plans for small, simple rockets that can fly frequently at unheard of price points. Just a few million dollars per launch.

Rocket Lab is one of those startups, and in January it made spaceflight history by becoming the first among these SmallSat launch providers to actually deliver satellites into orbit with its $5.7 million Electron-R rocket.

Now, customers are lining up.

Beck, the CEO, says he wants the Electron-R to launch eight times this year and eventually reach a once-per-month cadence. The second-ever of its launches is slated to come in the next few weeks.

The S-Class

York, founded in 2015, has developed what it says is a highly versatile satellite - a base structure that can be rejiggered to perform all types of tasks in orbit.

It's called the S-Class, and it's about the size of a mini fridge, costs less than $1 million, weighs up to 150 pounds, and can stay in orbit for three to five years. York plans to mass manufacture the S-Class as a sort of ready-to-use small satellite platform.

Dirk Wallinger, the firm's CEO, outlined a few ways the satellite can be used in an interview with CNNMoney.

Insurance companies could use S-Class satellites to give them better weather modeling and assess damages after natural disasters. Oil and gas companies like Shell and Exxon could use an S-Class to scan the Earth for undiscovered resources in remote areas.

There are already satellites in orbit that can provide this type of information. But the data those satellites deliver can be accessed by anyone.

Related: AI companies spot a business opportunity in space

That is one reason Wallinger says companies have an appetite for buying their own, personal satellites: They'll have exclusive rights to whatever data it collects.

And York's new deal with Rocket Lab is aimed at making it more economically feasible for companies and research groups to get it done.

The deal isn't exclusive. So, York is free to ink similar deals with Rocket Lab's competitors. Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit and Arizona-based startup Vector both plan to put rockets into orbit for the first time in the coming months.

Likewise, other small satellite builders are free to make deals with Rocket Lab.

There are still questions, however, about how sending up hoards of tiny new satellites can be done responsibly. Experts have called for the industry to regulate itself to ensure that there are no collisions as Low-Earth Orbit gets more crowded. And it remains to be seen exactly how long there will be strong demand in the SmallSat industry.

Wallinger, however, is confident this is just the beginning. The S-Class already has 91 governmental and commercial customers. And Wallinger says it's only the "tip of the iceberg" for how many use cases there could be.

Rocket Lab plans to launch the fist S-Class, retrofitted to take images of the Earth for Finnish space firm Iceye, in November.

Huntsville
Clear
82° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 85°
Florence
Broken Clouds
84° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 87°
Fayetteville
Clear
82° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 65°
Feels Like: 85°
Decatur
Clear
82° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 85°
Scottsboro
Overcast
82° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 89°
WAAY Radar
WAAY WAAY-TV Cam
WAAY Temperatures

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 91776

Reported Deaths: 1639
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson12039228
Mobile9170197
Montgomery6305147
Madison508227
Tuscaloosa398466
Baldwin326323
Shelby307532
Marshall298433
Unassigned281255
Lee251940
Morgan224315
Etowah195728
DeKalb171813
Elmore162637
Calhoun159012
Walker147464
Houston132712
Dallas129423
Russell12471
St. Clair123612
Limestone120813
Franklin120620
Cullman115711
Colbert110712
Lauderdale109512
Autauga103020
Escambia97915
Talladega92713
Jackson8704
Chambers82838
Tallapoosa82278
Dale78722
Butler75135
Blount7413
Chilton7226
Coffee7165
Covington71520
Pike6607
Barbour5635
Lowndes55824
Marion54724
Marengo52614
Clarke4879
Hale45726
Bullock44111
Winston43211
Perry4314
Wilcox4089
Monroe3954
Randolph39110
Bibb3813
Conecuh37210
Pickens3719
Sumter35918
Lawrence3240
Washington31412
Macon31113
Crenshaw2973
Choctaw27612
Cherokee2477
Henry2463
Greene24511
Geneva2420
Clay2235
Lamar2032
Fayette1765
Cleburne1211
Coosa922
Out of AL00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 112441

Reported Deaths: 1117
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Shelby21728293
Davidson19563205
Rutherford615553
Hamilton572047
Knox410837
Williamson330822
Sumner321970
Unassigned29575
Out of TN278914
Wilson210222
Sevier17565
Montgomery175212
Bradley173910
Putnam160113
Trousdale15766
Robertson145919
Hamblen129713
Blount11817
Tipton11239
Maury10897
Washington10892
Madison92913
Bedford87711
Macon84113
Sullivan8339
Hardeman83011
Lake7560
Loudon6823
Bledsoe6741
Fayette6428
Anderson6307
Dickson6091
Gibson5902
Dyer5687
Cheatham5486
Rhea5111
Jefferson5083
McMinn49320
Lawrence4916
Henderson4690
Obion4534
Lauderdale4386
Carter4335
Warren4294
Coffee4212
Cocke4121
Hardin4097
Haywood4025
Roane3922
Cumberland3856
Smith3843
Monroe3779
Greene3765
Hawkins3694
Giles35410
McNairy3245
DeKalb3221
Weakley3103
Franklin2864
Marshall2662
Lincoln2551
Carroll2443
Crockett2364
Claiborne2350
Hickman2330
Henry2250
Campbell2211
Wayne2191
Marion2094
White2053
Chester1962
Grainger1790
Polk1793
Johnson1770
Decatur1692
Overton1391
Unicoi1390
Union1290
Cannon1260
Humphreys1093
Benton1081
Jackson1081
Scott1050
Grundy1022
Meigs990
Sequatchie960
Morgan911
Fentress760
Hancock761
Perry740
Stewart700
Clay640
Lewis581
Houston540
Moore440
Van Buren330
Pickett251

Community Events