Learning the Lingo of New Space

Let’s be real, New Space is a jargon-y umbrella term for even more jargon. But never fear! We’ll explain it all – from COTS to nanolaunch.

Recent years have seen a quantum leap in rocket technology. From propulsive landings, to battery-powered turbopumps, to 3-D-printed engines, space travel is becoming more accessible and less environmentally impactful than ever before. Here in Maine we have two innovative rocket companies. VALT Enterprises is working on hypersonic air-breathing propulsion that will save tremendous amounts of weight and fuel by using oxygen from the air around it early in the flight. bluShift Aerospace has developed a bio-derived solid rocket fuel that is non-toxic, and has conducted one commercial flight with more on the way.

Satellites are changing too. In the past many were nearly the size of a school bus, and some still are. But as technology improves, many satellites are getting smaller. Today a satellite the size of a loaf of bread can perform experiments just as easily as its larger predecessors. For example MESAT-1, the first satellite built by Maine students, will launch into orbit and conduct three experiments this spring. It’s really that small!

Sometimes these small satellites can function together as a swarm, combining their abilities for specific missions. This is especially useful for Earth-imaging and telecommunications, where having many satellites working together greatly reduces wait times to take images or relay signals.

Many small satellites are designed and build according to set standards, developed by CalPoly in 2004. The guidelines call for satellites to be shaped like cubes, ten centimeters across on each side. If you need a bigger satellite you can put the cubes together. Today the most common type of CubeSat is 3 standard Units stacked end-to-end, or 10 x 10 x 30 centimeters, often shortened to just 3U. MESAT-1 is that size, as is the loaf of bread we mentioned earlier.

Probably the best thing about these next-generation satellites is that they can use Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) parts and don’t require clean rooms to build. This reduces cost and complexity, allowing for rapid prototyping in an industry where missions used to take years or even decades. For students working on a project that needs to be done by the end of the school year, or a startup that may need to fly a new technology several times before bringing it to market, the New Space revolution is a godsend!

Depending on the mission, a cubesat can cost from just a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Students and businesses from around the world are clamoring for more access to space. The small satellite launch industry alone is expected to reach $28 billion by the end of this decade, and that’s just one part of New Space.

With smaller satellites, new rockets, and lower costs than ever before, low-Earth Orbit is democratizing. The New Space Economy is growing exponentially, and with it opportunity! If we move decisively here in Maine, we can build a spaceport uniquely dedicated to the new generation of smaller rockets, launching small numbers of small satellites to orbits that pass not around the equator, but over the poles.

Polar orbits offer key advantages by allowing satellites to pass over the entire surface of the Earth, so they’re great for telecommunications and Earth-imaging. Because polar orbits are often also low-Earth orbits, satellites can relay signals faster or take higher-resolution images than their geostationary counterparts. But polar orbits are also convenient because they allow you to place a ground station at any latitude, and allow satellites to study solar radiation by passing through regions where the Earth’s magnetic field is weakest.

By the end of the decade, about half of that $28 billion economic demand will be for access to polar orbit. Ideally these launches would be conducted at a high latitude, on the coast, over the ocean, headed due North or South. Downeast Maine is unique on the US eastern seaboard in that it meets all of these requirements. By moving decisively we can become one of the most attractive launch sites in the world for launching small payloads to polar orbit.