New Launch Fails Hit Small Satellite Industry

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The small satellite industry has suffered two consecutive launch failures in two days, with California-based ABL Space Systems’ RS1 rocket failing near the coast of Alaska on Tuesday, just after Virgin Orbit’s air-launched rocket failed to reach orbit on Monday.

These back-to-back failures mark a setback for the emerging industry, which aims to offer a more affordable, frequent, and responsive service to operators of small satellites. ABL’s launch attempt was hoping to carry two small satellites to orbit for Omni Teq, with the California-based company being among a long list of others that are pursuing the same market.

These small spacecraft include SmallSats, which are as big as a family-size kitchen fridge, and a popular subset of SmallSats called CubeSats, which are standardized, miniature satellites that can be smaller than a shoebox.

The core of the business model is offering frequent rides to space and making the process more responsive to the needs of small satellite companies, including those that are essentially building massive constellations of satellites in low-Earth orbit for a variety of purposes, such as providing space-based internet or monitoring Earth.

However, the new class of smaller rockets have not proven to be as reliable as their larger counterparts, and a number of other startups, such as Rocket Lab, Astra, and Firefly, have all suffered their own share of launch failures.

The industry also faces competition from larger rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which started a SmallSat “rideshare” business in 2019, and has launched six missions dedicated to small satellites for various customers.

Despite the recent setbacks, the small satellite industry is still in its infancy, and there are still plenty of opportunities to make it a success. Companies like ABL and Virgin Orbit have already shown the potential of what can be achieved, and the industry is only likely to grow from here.