This article addresses “What are the causes for smallsat launch delays and how can they be mitigated or eliminated?”
What are the causes for smallsat launch delays?
Bryce Tech published a report in 2020 which examined the causes for smallsats launch delays from 2015 to 2019. The report examined 1,078 smallsats with a mass of 600 kg or less.
Smallsats launches generally involve coordinating multiple satellites, as well as launch vehicle and launch range. The following illustration highlights of the various milestones where delays can be introduced.
The report identified that all 1,078 smallsats experienced delays. The median delay was 128 days. Some smallsats were delayed by years and others only by a few weeks.
The report found that 40% of delays were due to payloads, including those of the primary payload on launches where smallsats were flying as secondary payloads. Launch vehicle related issues accounted for 34% of delays.
The Impact of Launch Delays on Smallsat Operators
Launch delays have impacts of time and money. Depending upon the duration of the delay, there may also be significant impact on: personnel availability, resource availability, mission/business viability, and business revenue.
For scientific missions, there is often a fixed budget and a fixed timeline for availability of staff and resources. Launch delays can jeopardize the mission.
For commercial missions, launch delays usually represent lost revenue and lost competitive advantage. For early stage companies, launch delays can be fatal.
In the case of a launch anomaly where the smallsat is destroyed, the operator would suffer a financial loss resulting from the cost of having to replace the smallsat and all the costs associated with extending the mission timeline.
Mitigating or eliminating the potential for delays has a monetary value to customers. For launch service providers, reliability and scheduling certainty can be a major competitive advantage. Therefore, it is in the interest of both the smallsat operator and launch service provider to minimize or eliminate as many sources of potential delay as possible.
How Can Delays Be Mitigated Or Eliminated?
Smallsat Operator Mitigations
Smallsats operators can mitigate and/or eliminate delays by doing the following:
- Understand delays as well as what to manage and track.
- Assess costs which could be incurred due to potential delays.
- Plan contingencies to mitigate delays by incorporating financial margin/reserve and schedule flexibility into the mission planning.
- Consider purchasing launch insurance to mitigate against financial loss due to a launch vehicle anomaly.
- Select a launch service provider that mitigates potential delays.
Launch Service Provider Mitigations
The selection of a launch service provider can mitigate or eliminate up to 87% of potential launch delays identified by the report:
Launch service providers having an established flight history with high reliability can mitigate the 6% likelihood of a launch anomaly causing loss of the satellite and associated delay to the customer’s mission. The performance can vary widely between small launch service providers. For example, Astra Space has an overall flight success rate of 20% and a flight success rate for their Rocket 3.3 of 40%. This is in contrast to Rocket Lab who have an overall flight success rate of 90%.
Launch service providers which do not deploy smallsats from the International Space Station can eliminate 11% of potential launch delays.
40% of potential launch delays are due to primary or customer payloads delays, which can be mitigated or eliminated by:
- Launch service providers offering dedicated launches can eliminate launch delays caused by primary payloads that can occur with rideshare launches.
- Launch service providers offering frequent scheduled launches, and/or responsive launches, can help mitigate delays due to a customer’s smallsat schedule. The launch service provider in this case will be able to offer re-manifesting flight opportunities much sooner than might be available for a rideshare launch where the primary payload operator dictates the schedule.
Launch service providers with an existing inventory of launch vehicles which are production quality and not developmental, can help mitigate or eliminate 28% of potential delays associated with launch vehicle development and manufacturing.
Smallsat customers can mitigate or eliminate potential launch delays by up to 87% as a consequence of their selection of a small launch service provider. Not all small launch service providers are equal.
Small launch service providers can differentiate themselves from competitors based on their ability to mitigate or eliminate potential launch delays by offering some, or all, of the following:
- Dedicated launches
- Frequent scheduled launch opportunities
- Responsive (on demand) launches
- Inventory of production quality rockets
- High reliability launch vehicle
Currently, SpaceX’s rideshare program offers pricing that is significantly better than small launch service providers can currently offer. The ability of a small launch service provider to mitigate or eliminate potential launch delays may help justify a launch price premium for some customers.
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