Getting smallsats into space: how automation will give you the acceleration power you need to attract new investors

Where the space industry used to be a battleground for superpowers with agencies sponsored by governments, today newspace companies are shaping the future. In the space market, there is an increasing demand for small satellites: in the next decade many thousands of these smallsats must find their way into Earth orbit. But without access to launch, how can newspace companies get their smallsats to space and meet demand?

Just to be clear: the sense of urgency is high. The current microlauncher market is primarily seeing initiatives taking off in China and America. Europe is lagging behind, and if it fails to catch up between now and two years, the window of market opportunities will have greatly narrowed.

The challenge for new space companies is to get their own launching capabilities that disrupt in price as well as in production speed and volume. At Airborne, we strongly feel that the solution doesn’t lie in ramping up classical series production. Instead, the answer is smart production technology that can compete. And the great news is: this technology already exists!

From piggyback rides to dedicated launch solutions

Nowadays smallsat companies are still dependent on getting a piggyback ride from bigger, costlier launchers – such as the Ariana, Vega, Falcon or Delta rockets. This is not only expensive and can take several months to get a ride up; the smallsats are also stuck with the same drop off location, which often deviates from its own end destination. Therefore commercial space companies are looking for affordable and market-friendly microlaunchers to launch smallsats at a fast pace and which will drop them off in the right orbit.

But what about those tight benchmarks?!

But to meet the tight benchmarks, innovative solutions are a must. The first step is that a microlauncher cannot be too heavy. Currently, many rockets are still made of metal. However, companies are discovering the benefits of composites: it is lightweight, very stiff and very durable. So using composites in the vehicle structure, will help create sufficient payload capacity.

So with composites, you can build strong, light and capable launchers. Perfect for getting smallsats into orbit. But here comes the challenge: composites are typically expensive to manufacture manually and therefore unattractive for mass production. So, how to ensure high production rates while keeping production costs low to stay competitive?

Taking matters into your own (automated) hands

By automating your composites production, this is no longer an issue. Benefits include lower manufacturing costs, increased production rates, constant quality, scalability and full industrialisation. Instead of a few per year, the industry will be able produce and launch microlaunchers by the week.

I understand how the word automation can initially scare off companies, due to the stereotype that automation comes with high investment risks. However, nowadays the investment does not have to be excessive at all. At Airborne we deploy robotic solutions at an order of magnitude lower CAPEX level than with classical automation, and program them to execute multiple steps in a production process. We are talking about low-CAPEX and flexible robotic ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions that can be customised if needed. All to ensure affordable composite manufacturing.

Let’s make it real!

How you choose to go about, is up to you. If obtaining enough venture capital is a big challenge, we could think about joint ventures. In Europe a lot of great knowledge is spread over several companies and countries. At Airborne, we can complement your expertise with our own knowledge in composites and automation. Let us make microlaunchers real!

This blog was published on Linkedin as well – please visit Sandor Woldendorp’s Linkedin Profile to connect.

About the author
Picture of Sandor Woldendorp

Sandor Woldendorp

Business Unit Director Aerospace

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