If all goes as planned, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V will lift off from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., later this week with a classified National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) payload on board. Already tucked into a special carrier suspended from a helium tank in the rocket's upper stage, right next to the RL-10 engine, are 11 tiny satellites riding to orbit as secondary payloads.

Some of the cubesats are flying NRO missions, but four were built at U.S. universities by engineering students and all of them were integrated into their spring-loaded deployers at California Polytechnic State University.

Cal Poly developed the Poly-PicoSatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD) used by most cubesat builders these days. Essentially square tubes that eject as many as three 10 X 10 X 10-cm cubesats at once, P-PODS can be tucked into extra space on any launch vehicle's upper stage where they don't get in the way of the primary mission.

In the NRO launch, NASA's Office of Education arranged for the university cubesats to fly on the Atlas V Aft Bulkhead Carrier developed with funding from the NRO Office of Space Launch. The civilian space agency finds rides to orbit for student-built spacecraft under its Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program, which sends the educational tools to space at essentially no cost to the schools that built them.

The ELaNA process illustrates a big advantage of small satellites—their low cost to orbit.

“Smaller satellites are not only generally cheaper to build, but they're also cheaper to launch,” says John Roth, vice president for business development at Sierra Nevada Space Systems, which specializes in smallsats. “And since the launch cost is a large percentage of mission cost, if you can get your satellite as a secondary payload on a launch—or at least get it on a small launch vehicle rather than a large launch vehicle—you save tons of money. You save probably more than the cost of the satellite just in the launch cost.”

A NASA-built cubesat is already in orbit on Japan's third H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-3) after its July 20 launch from the Tanegashima Space Center, but it will not be deployed until September or October. Developed at Ames Research Center, the Technical and Educational Satellite (TechEdSat) will be jettisoned into space from the exposed “porch” of the Kibo Japanese Exploration Module by a new version of the P-POD called the Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (J-SSOD).

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency developed three of the five cubesats to be lofted from the J-SSOD, but TechEdSat will be the first U.S. cubesat deployed from the Japanese exposed facility. A Vietnamese cubesat is also scheduled for a deployment arranged by Nanoracks, a U.S. company that hopes to provide more cubesat deployments from the ISS (AW&ST June 25, p. 44).

With increasing military interest in cubesats and small satellites in general, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has awarded $46 million in 18-month Phase One contracts under its Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (Alasa) program to Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Virgin Galactic. The goal is to launch payloads weighing less than 100 lb. to low Earth orbit on 24-hr. notice for no more than $1 million (AW&ST June 25, p. 33).

Announced at the Farnborough air show, the unmanned LauncherOne smallsat vehicle (see photo) will use the same WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft that Virgin Galactic plans for its SpaceShipTwo human suborbital missions (AW&ST July 9, p. 119).

Virgin says its plans call for first flight of the smallsat launcher in 2015 and commercial flights beginning by 2016. With suborbital passenger flights on SpaceShipTwo possible by the end of 2013, the smalsat launches would be another revenue source for the startup.

Even without the million-dollar launches envisioned by Darpa, there is already a wide variety of small, relatively low-cost vehicles available for smallsats, including the Russian Dnepr, Rokot and Kosmos 3M; the U.S. Pegasus and Minotaur; India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle; and eventually, perhaps, launchers under development in Argentina, Brazil, South Korea and even China.