ANGELES — It seems like everyone wants their own swarm
of small satellites.
OneWeb, Boeing Co. and other companies have proposed
putting constellations of small satellites in low-Earth
orbit that could provide greater internet access in
previously hard-to-reach areas of the globe.
to technological advances, the costs of developing and
launching satellites have fallen to the point where even
some schools can afford to send their own science
missions into space.
small-satellite boom has sparked development of new
launch methods as well. Earlier this month, Richard
Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism company spun
off its small-satellite launching business, Virgin
Orbit. Virgin Orbit is developing LauncherOne, a rocket
that will drop from the wing of a modified 747 and carry
satellites into space.
Los Angeles Times spoke with Dan Hart, president of
Virgin Orbit, about the new market. Hart previously was
vice president of government satellite systems at
Boeing, where he also worked on the space shuttle
program and Delta launch system.
an edited version of the interview.
How small are these satellites?
You’re talking about anything from a shoebox, to a
microwave, to maybe a large washing machine or small
large geosynchronous satellites are the size of
minivans, or a small bus, or a maybe a small car.
Why are companies increasingly interested in launching
and operating small satellites?
I think it all follows a general progression of
expectations that we have for communication and imaging.
We’re seeing that we can build and launch small
satellites much less expensively to cover new
applications, and we can refresh those as technology
changes every two to three years.
old economy of geosynchronous is you build a large
satellite, it’s expensive, you want it to last a long
time, so you put a lot of money into it … and you hope
it’ll last 15 to 20 years.
How is the development of small-satellite launch
vehicles like LauncherOne different from that of bigger
rockets, like the Delta you previously worked on?
Manufacturing technologies and design technologies have
advanced significantly over the last five, 10, 20 years.
And in composite (materials) and propulsion systems …
there have been huge advances that have helped us to
improve the rate of manufacturing and launch costs.
What kinds of processes do you need in place to
effectively make affordable small-satellite launchers?
It’s a combination of new technology, and honestly,
what will really drive the cost down for launch is a
steady, sustained rate.
happening with this whole low-Earth orbit revolution
going on in the market is there’s really a promise we’re
seeing for a host of different large-scale
constellations for low-Earth orbit spacecraft. And that
one will feed the other.
What’s the benefit of launching satellites from
beneath a plane?
We have huge flexibility. We can go out over the ocean
and launch it over a wide variety of angles and really
get tailored orbits for our customers. And we don’t
have a big launch pad setup that we have to clean and
A number of these networks were proposed in the 1990s,
and many ultimately failed to get off the ground. Are
you concerned that today’s constellation proposals
could meet the same fate?
Not really because there’s really quite a bit more
momentum here, and the technology is so different. So
what we’re seeing is really proof points that are in
orbit already from a number of companies that are
already operating relatively large numbers of small
were some courageous players back in the late ‘90s and
early 2000s that I think had blazed the trail. Now the
technology has really developed to where there’s
really no doubt that communications (and) remote sensing
capabilities can be provided very cost-effectively from