What Is Nanolaunch?

When we think about rockets, we tend to think of behemoths. From NASA’s Space Shuttle and Saturn V, to near-mythical figures like NASA’s Nova and Aerojet’s Sea Dragon, the Space Age used to be big. Today with SpaceX’s Starship and Blue Origin’s New Glenn reaching exciting milestones, there’s still a clear role for huge ships as we continue to explore space. But for uncrewed missions, with advances in propulsion and more and more satellites getting smaller and smaller, some exciting new options are opening up for how we design rockets.

Last post we discussed the CubeSat, the most common form factor for small satellites in the New Space Revolution. Most cubesats are small enough to be considered a nanosatellite (or nanosat), which is basically any satellite massing between 1 and 10 kilograms. When the satellites get this small, you basically have two options:

  1. Launch hundreds or thousands of nanosatellites at a time with a large rocket
    • Economies of scale kick in here, which is great so long as all the payloads have the same target orbit and timeline
    • many large rockets are crew-rated, so payload customers will have to complete more rigorous testing of their cubesats, adding time and money to the R&D overhead
  2. Launch a few small satellites at a time with a small rocket
    • This is more ideal for low-volume ridesharing customers who do not share a common destination

Basically to ship your satellite to space you can send it on the train or in a taxi. Which solution is best for your payload depends on your mission. If you go with Option 2 and choose a launch vehicle that is designed to launch small numbers of nanosatellites then congratulations, you just entered the world of nanolaunch! The terms are evolving, so don’t be surprised to see microlaunch used as well. These small rockets may be suborbital (straight up to space and straight back down) or orbital (up and then sideways really fast to achieve orbit), so book your payload’s flight carefully!

The soft upper limit of nanolaunch is probably the Rocket Labs Electron, which with its 300-kilogram payload capacity is advertised as a “small launch vehicle.” Some of the leaders in the nanolaunch space are Raptor Aerospace, UP Aerospace, and Dawn Aerospace. But did you know Maine has two nanolaunchers? bluShift Aerospace in Brunswick and VALT Enterprises in Caribou are both working to serve this emerging market. Their solutions are radically different, so make sure to check them out! Both companies have had successful prototype flights, and bluShift plans to begin commercial service next year.

With hundreds of companies competing for market share around the world, it’s refreshing to see a focus on sustainability. From 3-D printing, to biofuels, to air-breathing engines, to solutions like launching a rocket from a balloon in the upper atmosphere, nearly every NewSpace nanolauncher champions at least one innovation to reduce the environmental impact of rocket launches. We hope the big guys are paying attention.

As the nanosatellite launch industry grows to $28 million by the end of the decade, with about half of that demand being for polar orbits, we hope the little guys are paying attention too. Maine is a beautiful place to visit, and to launch from. Spaceport Maine will be dedicated to small launch, so launch costs won’t cover the upkeep of gargantuan infrastructure that you’ll never use. And lastly, we’re not called Vacationland for nothing. Come for the launch, stay for the lobster!