While recent commercial competition has dropped the cost of reaching orbit to a point that many would have deemed impossible just a decade ago, it’s still incredibly expensive. We’ve moved on from the days where space was solely the domain of world superpowers into an era where multi-billion dollar companies can join on on the fun, but the technological leaps required to reduce it much further are still largely relegated to the drawing board. For the time being, thing’s are as good as they’re going to get.
If we can’t count on the per pound cost of an orbital launch to keep dropping over the next few years, the next best option would logically be to design spacecraft that are smaller and lighter. Thankfully, that part is fairly easy. The smartphone revolution means we can already pack an incredible amount sensors and processing power into something that can fit in the palm of your hand. But there’s a catch: the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation.
Often referred to as simply the “rocket equation”, it allows you to calculate (among other things) the ratio of a vehicle’s useful cargo to its total mass. For an orbital rocket, this figure is very small. Even with a modern launcher like the Falcon 9, the payload makes up less than 5% of the liftoff weight. In other words, the laws of physics demand that orbital rockets are huge.
Unfortunately, the cost of operating such a rocket doesn’t scale with how much mass it’s carrying. No matter how light the payload is, SpaceX is going to want around $60,000,000 USD to launch the Falcon 9. But what if you packed it full of dozens, or even hundreds, of smaller satellites? If they all belong to the same operator, then it’s an extremely cost-effective way to fly. On the other hand, if all those “passengers” belong to different groups that split the cost of the launch, each individual operator could be looking at a hundredfold price reduction.
SpaceX has already packed 60 of their small and light Starlink satellites into a single launch, but even those craft are massive compared to what other groups are working on. We’re seeing the dawn of a new era of spacecraft that are even smaller than CubeSats. These tiny spacecraft offer exciting new possibilities, but also introduce unique engineering challenges.