Got a satellite you want to pitch into orbit? India’s space agency will take it, but the Indian government doesn’t really want to with deal you unless you’ve got a “primary”–a bird larger than 200 kilograms.
Instead, businesses and universities with smaller, “secondary” satellites can hitch rides on launch vehicles designed for primaries by working with launch broker Earth2Orbit, which can sell you spots on Indian launch vehicles and even help you interface your small satellite into the launch vehicle for the brief trip. Earth2Orbit will also help you sort out insurance issues.
Co-CEO Amaresh Kollipara laid out the business for me. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) doesn’t have the manpower to hustle for business nor the staff to deal with owners of smaller satellites. Likewise, most companies don’t have access to government agencies like ISRO, NASA, its Russian counterpart Roscosmos, or the big commercial launch providers like Boeing or SpaceX, when they want to launch a smallish satellite.
How small? Anything under about 200 kilograms–and as the satellites get smaller, things get simpler. If you can fit an experiment into a cube 10 centimeters on a side, you can get a cubesat slot for about $180,000 and get it into space in about a year and a half. Once at low Earth polar orbit, where the Indian rockets currently go, your satellite will be spring-ejected away from the primary bird for its own mission. There are only about 40 cubesats in orbit so far, but Kollipara says universities, especially Japanese universities, are particularly interested in the format (which, he adds, was standardized by Stanford). The cubesats are likely to also be used for testing technologies that will eventually find their ways onto primaries. (About 20 percent of Earth2Orbit’s bookings are cubesats; the rest are nonstandard, larger launch units, but still under the 200 kilogram primary cutoff.)
The company is also working on a universal separation module for small satellites–basically the electrical and physical connector that satellites are attached to until they’re ready to fly free. Earth2Orbit may also get into the business of re-selling space-based imaging, which remains a multibillion-dollar market (Kollipara gives me an example: a securities analyst might want to be able to count cars in Wal-Mart parking lots on given days–and you can’t necessarily get that from Google).
At the moment the company only brokers spots in ISRO’s low Earth orbit satellites, but Kollipara tells me he’s hoping to be able to offer a similar service on Russian rockets.
Like the benign but parasitic launch slots it sells, Earth2Orbit itself is an opportunistic, small (seven-person) company riding on the large, capital-intensive, and highly risky space launch business. It’s a good business, human-intensive, and hard to break in to, based on hard-to-forge relationships with government agencies. There’s no cost of goods, just salaries–at least until the company gets into to buying imaging data and manufacturing launch separation modules.
While information and commerce brokerages can be good businesses for a while, there is always a risk that the organizations that own the services being brokered could cut out middlemen and go direct to the customers. It is, however, unlikely that a space agency would prefer that; using a private company as the interface to private industry seems to make sense. And with deliberate, large government agencies, it would be easy to see such a change coming. If that does happen, Earth2Orbit’s other services may be able to fill in the gap.