CubeSats are ultra-small spacecraft weighing 1.3kg or less. Most CubeSats piggyback to orbit on big, expensive rockets – but affordable rocket technology is launching a new generation of space start-ups.
In the past satellites have been built and launched by multibillion-dollar companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences Corporation.
That began to change in January 2014 when Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft carried 33 nanosatellites to the International Space Station, ISS. These tiny satellites, built to the CubeSat standard format — a 10cm cube weighing 1.3kg or less — were launched from the ISS a month later.
Since 2014 more than 650 CubeSats, including 295 last year, have been launched into low-Earth orbit, performing services including tracking shipping and monitoring weather, crops, cattle and pollution.
CubeSats usually hitch a ride into space as secondary payloads aboard large rockets, which are expensive — an Atlas 5 rocket launch costs around $109 million, while SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 costs $62 million a time.
Now, U.S. company Rocket Lab has launched three CubeSats into orbit from a private launch pad in New Zealand. Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder, says his two-stage Electron rocket brings the cost of reaching orbit down to $5 million a launch.
“Our rocket is one of the tools that is enabling much more access to space,” says Beck. “Space is tipping from a government dominated domain to a commercial domain.”
Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimates the space market is worth around $340 billion, calling it “one of the final frontiers of investing.” BofAML sees the space industry ballooning over the next three decades, to at least $2.7 trillion.
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