NASA, 16 October 2014
Recent technology advancements have enabled the development of small cheap satellites that can perform useful functions in the space environment. Currently, the only low cost option for getting these payloads into orbit is through ride share programs - small satellites awaiting the launch of a larger satellite, and then riding along on the same launcher. As a result, these small satellite customers await primary payload launches and a backlog exists. An alternative option would be dedicated nano-launch systems built and operated to provide more flexible launch services, higher availability, and affordable prices. The potential customer base that would drive requirements or support a business case includes commercial, academia, civil government and defense. Further, NASA technology investments could enable these alternative game changing options.
With this context, in 2013 the Game Changing Development (GCD) program funded a NASA team to investigate the feasibility of dedicated nano-satellite launch systems with a recurring cost of less than $2 million per launch for a 5 kg payload to low Earth orbit. The team products would include potential concepts, technologies and factors for enabling the ambitious cost goal, exploring the nature of the goal itself, and informing the GCD program technology investment decision making process.
This paper provides an overview of the life cycle analysis effort that was conducted in 2013 by an inter-center NASA team. This effort included the development of reference nano-launch system concepts, developing analysis processes and models, establishing a basis for cost estimates (development, manufacturing and launch) suitable to the scale of the systems, and especially, understanding the relationship of potential game changing technologies to life cycle costs, as well as other factors, such as flights per year.