Small Business and the Future of Spaceflight

The coming years are going to be a real boon in the amount of space-related work that small businesses can take on. Small business is already working with NASA and other major Aerospace and harsh environment companies on the new Constellation Program, which will put man back on the Moon by 2020 and then, later, on Mars, but there are other opportunities to get in on the action if you know where to look. As technology develops, the chances for small business to reach for the stars will be greater and greater. 

Small Ships and Small Business

Yes, the movie poster was right: Size does matter. In fact, it matters a lot. As you read this, the price of sending 1 pound of anything into orbit is about $5,000. That means space is out of reach for most private businesses. After all, satellites are big and heavy and they’re expensive to build; and you also have the launch vehicle and fuel to consider. It adds up quickly, but soon the math is likely to change. 

Right now, satellites and probes are being developed that are smaller than a suitcase, in some cases they are the size of soup cans, and as they come into use over the next few years, they will open up windows of opportunities for entrepreneurs. 

Consider Ashwin-Ushas Corporation, a small research and development company based in New Jersey. They have developed a very thin, lightweight film with the feel of flexible plastic that changes color when electrically charged. What makes this useful to spacecraft designers is the fact that this color change works in the visible spectrum as well as in the infrared (heat) range. This gives it the ability to go from reflecting heat to absorbing heat depending on the temperatures. Because of the importance of on-board temperature control, this is seen as breaking through one of the major barriers to building miniature spacecraft. This is all and good, but what would a tiny spacecraft be used for? In an interview with Space.com, Prasanna Chandrasekhar, a polymer chemist and materials scientist at Ashwin-Ushas, offers one answer. 

"You'd see micro-spacecraft mainly in communications. Instead of companies sharing a large satellite, you could have even small companies getting their own micro-spacecraft. For the military, undetectability is also important, either for surveillance applications or when it comes to zapping other satellites. When it comes to a spacecraft less than 5 kilograms (10 pounds), you can't really detect it unless it's within a quarter of a mile of you. Larger spacecraft can be detected from farther, and consequently blasted out of the sky." 

Communications and the military, but how about exploration and planetary defense? Inspired by science fiction, these tiny ships could be scattered across the planets of our solar system to prepare the way for human exploration or to send back data from places to hostile to allow astronauts to visit. Well beyond the drawing board, however, is a Canadian effort to put their second suitcase-sized spacecraft in orbit to search for rogue asteroids that could hit the Earth. The first, called Microvariability and Oscillations of STars (MOST) is a 60kg space telescope that has been in operation for the last five years. This new one, called NEOSSat for Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite, is built along the same lines, weighs 65kg and is equipped with a 15cm (5.9 inch) telescope and next-generation tracking and maneuvering systems to allow it to track asteroids as well as other satellites and other orbiting material. 

Small Ships, Small Engines

Current rocket engines are big, powered by a solid propellant or by a mix of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, and beyond pushing a payload skyward, they are filled with sound and fury, fire and smoke. That is hardly the way one would send a soup can to Mars. You may want that to lift hundreds of such tiny spacecraft into orbit for release, but it would be easier and far cheaper if the little ships could make the trip on their own. 

Pretty soon, they might. 

Back in 1998, NASA launched a deep space probe named, oddly enough, Deep Space One (DS1). It had the usual sensors and test equipment, but it carried something else, an engine that many thought would be just a pipedream; an Ion Thruster. Built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Ion Thruster is, essentially, a quiet, electrically-based rocket engine that produces thrust by rapidly ejecting the ions created by electrifying a gas. It doesn’t generate a great deal of acceleration, but the longer it operates in the vacuum of space, the faster the ship goes, accelerating at a constant, albeit gentle, pace. It took DS1 20 months, for example, to reach a speed of 7,900mph. 

Since the great success of DS1, NASA has been working on its NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) propulsion program for a variety of size applications both large and small. On the small end of that spectrum, JPL has been working on engines the size of postage stamps to power the new generation of tiny spacecraft. They wouldn’t produce much thrust, but then, they wouldn’t have to. All they would have to do is spread their solar panel wings and fly. 

The Bottom Line

We learned in the microcomputer revolution that as technology progresses, it invariably becomes cheaper, and that process places that technology within everyone’s reach. There are small firms that are already on the ground floor with the next generation of space flight, but there is much more business to be done and many more opportunities for America’s entrepreneurial know-how to come to the fore and show us all how it’s done.