The space race’s humble beginnings of Sputnik and Explorer 1 have kick-started a massive launch industry. Today, at least 11,000 satellites are orbiting Earth, though not all are government-owned. Instead, many are private satellites used in industries ranging from telecommunications to agriculture.
In the past, governments were the only ones that authorized launches, so how are private satellites launched? Unlike government models, private technology isn’t subject to as much intense bureaucracy. Learn more about these amazing devices below.
Despite not being owned by the governments of the countries private companies are based in, private satellites are launched the same way as government-owned ones. For both, it starts with a rocket launch.
The launch site personnel will work for lengthy periods to calculate a precise flight path, which is crucial for proper functionality. Then, as launch day comes closer, the satellite is stowed in the rocket. The rocket is then aimed straight up and launched.
With the help of an inertial guidance system, the rocket will automatically adjust its current orientation and angles to match the predetermined flight plan. (For the non-scientists in the audience, Merriam-Webster defines inertial guidance as “guidance [as of an aircraft or spacecraft] through self-contained automatically controlling devices that respond to inertial forces.”)
Many plans have rockets flying eastward, as the Earth’s rotation can provide an extra boost. The additional speed depends on the launch location since the closer to the equator it is, the more extra speed rockets get due to the velocity of the Earth’s rotation. Thus the placement of Cape Canaveral in Florida and the Johnson (“Houston, we have a problem”) Space Center in Texas.
Rockets are incredibly heavy, so even a small boost will help conserve fuel when fighting gravity. Furthermore, the less fuel consumed, the more likely the satellite will reach its planned location.
Small booster rockets are activated and fired as the main rocket is about 120 miles away from the Earth’s surface. This forces the projectile sideways, and the satellite is released. At some point after release, the rocket is propelled further away, so it doesn’t interfere with the satellite.
The horizontal forces ensure the satellite can maintain orbit. Too slow, gravity will quickly pull the object back to the surface. It will burn up and result in millions of dollars of waste and potential catastrophe on the ground.
A correct orbital velocity will stabilize the satellite’s flight path and ensure it maintains a geostationary orbit. Many satellites are meant to make a single revolution around the planet in 24 hours, requiring them to orbit around 7,000 mph.
The orbiting satellite is then activated and serves its intended purpose. Eventually, these satellites will become obsolete or reach the end of their service lives. There are two primary outcomes as satellites become too old.
Some satellites will have a reserve of fuel for a final journey, and the engineers will pilot it into the atmosphere or farther away from Earth. It usually depends on how high up the satellite was launched. High-orbit satellites are typically made to orbit the Earth with no specific end date, potentially staying up there for centuries.
Low-orbit satellites are usually sent to a location in the South Pacific Ocean called the Spacecraft Cemetery, a remote patch of ocean far from civilization.
The Older Way
NASA used the space shuttle Discovery to drop commercial satellites into stable orbits, much like the process described above, from 1981 to 1985. The U.S. government banned practically all private payloads on the space shuttle following the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The Discovery space shuttle was retired from active duty in 2011.
Using a space shuttle to launch a satellite remains a relatively ignored but important footnote in satellite history.
Where Are Private Satellites Launched From?
Private satellites are usually launched from government-owned launch sites and facilities. The primary reason is that many of them are available, and private companies are allowed to lease them. Instead of building a new private site, which happens occasionally, many private-sector companies prefer using available locations.
Here are countries with spaceports within their territory.
- South Korea
- New Zealand
- French Guiana
Not surprisingly, almost half of them are on U.S. soil.
There are a few recent examples as of writing time. In May 2022, South Korean software developer company Hancom Group made history by launching the nation’s first private observation satellite. Sejong-1 was loaded onto a Falcon 9 rocket and departed the surface from the Kennedy Space Center.
Sejong-1 weighed only about 11 kilograms or 24 pounds. It’s considered a low-orbit satellite and is designed to orbit the planet 12 times a day, with a maximum of 14 revolutions.
Kennedy Space Center is located in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and has been active for decades. The Apollo and Space Shuttle programs began and ended there. Today, many rockets are still launched from the facility, both private and government-owned.
Private Spaceflight Companies
Privatizing spaceflight has led to the rise of a billion-dollar launch industry. In 1984, the U.S. government passed a law allowing private launches. Six years later, another law would order NASA to pay these private companies and launch their payloads. As a result, the global space economy is worth more than 345 billion dollars, as this information was from 2016.
While it’s impossible to cover every launch service provider, here are several major players in the industry.
It would be impossible to talk about private rockets without mentioning SpaceX, Elon Musk’s beloved company. While the man’s actions can be drastic, such as acquiring Twitter, SpaceX is a mighty name in the launch industry. For example, SpaceX handled the Falcon 9 rocket that successfully placed Sejong-1 in orbit, a testament to professionalism and expertise.
SpaceX has access to facilities in the U.S.; it doesn’t launch from other countries (yet).
- Kennedy Space Center, Launch Complex 39A, Florida
- Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Space Launch Complex 40, Florida
- Vandenberg Air Force Base, Space Launch Complex 4 East, California
- SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California
- SpaceX’s testing facility in MacGregor, Texas
- Starbase, Texas
Only the first three are used for commercial satellite launches. Starbase is a work in progress, and Elon Musk envisions it to be the world’s first commercial launch site for orbital missions.
Elon Musk wants to change the launch industry by introducing reusable rockets. In the past, rockets were single-use only; but the Falcon 9 is different. Thanks to the company’s Merlin engines, these rockets can deliver payloads to designated spots before returning to the surface.
As of Q1 2022, one Falcon 9 rocket booster has been fired 12 times, a world record. The latest launch saw the rocket deliver 53 Starlink internet satellites payload.
On the other hand, Falcon Heavy is only partially reusable, but it’s the world’s most powerful rocket available.
Reusing rockets can help reduce launch costs, as building a one-time-use device is no longer necessary. Now, the expenses are primarily for fuel and repairs.
Rocket Lab is another private company making waves in the launch industry. It was founded in 2006 by New Zealand citizen Peter Beck, with the first headquarters in Auckland. The second headquarters in Huntington Beach, California, was established in 2013. While SpaceX is also involved in commercial space flights (and the eventual colonization of Mars), Rocket Lab focuses on rockets.
Currently, the company sends rockets to orbit from Launch Complex 1 in Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand. Launch Complex 2 is in Wallops Island, Virginia. The latter facility only started launching rockets in 2021.
Rocket Lab is famous for its funny launch flight names. So here they are, in no particular order.
- Make It Rain
- Two Thumbs Up
- That’s a Funny-Looking Cactus
- It’s a Test
- Still Testing
- It’s Business Time
- Look Ma, No Hands
The last one is the company’s latest mission, which was on August 19, 2021.
These launches involved the company’s Electron rockets, a two-stage missile that costs $5 million a flight. However, the cost is spread over the rocket’s potential payload of several dozen satellites. In addition, the Electron itself is relatively small, only 59 feet tall.
Rocket Lab announced in 2021 that it intends to launch the Neutron rocket by 2024. This rocket is at least twice as tall and can even send astronauts to the moon. But, of course, payloads would be larger.
Most interesting is the Photon, an integrated launch and satellite solution. It’s a customizable spacecraft that Rocket Lab can modify to suit customers’ needs. While this technology can launch on its own, the company states it’s capable of flying on other launch vehicles as well.
On another humorous note, Peter Beck once joked about eating his hat if Rocket Lab were to develop reusable boosters. The company is now pursuing this goal, but not by mimicking SpaceX and Blue Origin technology. Instead, these boosters are to be retrieved by flying helicopters after releasing payloads.
Besides the sense of humor, Rocket Lab has what it takes to compete in the private space industry.
Blue Origin was founded by Jeff Bezos in 2000 and is led by CEO Bob Smith. As such, the company has close relations with Amazon. Currently, Blue Origin is developing its New Glenn spacecraft, the company’s heavy rocket designed to carry larger payloads. (They’ve named their launch projects after John Glenn and Alan Shepard Jr., two astronauts from NASA’s Mercury program.)
Similar to SpaceX, Blue Origin has plans to make commercial space flights viable. Thus, its Blue Shepard rockets have seats for six people.
As of 2022, Blue Origin has successfully tested New Shepard in many launches. The most recent one had passengers in New Shepard’s crew capsule, including Evan Dick, a repeat customer. It was the fifth crewed flight of any Blue Origin rocket.
Previously, many New Shepard flights have successfully delivered payloads. Some were commercial, while others were educational or governmental.
A current problem Blue Origin is facing is that its BE-4 LOX/LNG engines are still undergoing testing and development. Aside from being used by United Launch Alliance’s Vulkan spacecraft and the New Glenn rocket, the delays prevent the latter from getting certified by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Though Blue Origin is somewhat behind its competitors’ progress, the company isn’t giving up.
The Future of Private Satellites
As more startups and companies join the space race, private satellites will only increase.
Mega constellations are groups containing thousands of satellites orbiting the planet. These mega constellations can achieve global satellite internet coverage if implemented correctly, but an extra 50,000 satellites in orbit will be difficult to control.
There may be a problem, as an excessive amount of debris in space will make newer launches more dangerous. Aside from the threat to commercial space passenger flights, satellites aren’t immune.
The International Space Station was hit by a piece of space junk in May 2021, leaving a hole in one robotic arm. Satellites can meet the same fate or worse. In 2009, defunct Russian satellite Cosmos 2251 rammed into Iridium 33, an active commercial satellite at that time.
The collision resulted in a large amount of space debris, and with more private satellites being launched, we’ll surely notice such accidents occurring more often.
Space garbage floats around and hits other items, creating even more debris. This is called the Kessler effect, and the Iridium-Cosmos collision is a classic example of this worrying phenomenon.
Space debris is unpredictable, so cleaning it up is increasingly essential.
As a result, some companies are developing technologies to capture space junk and clear up the Earth’s orbit. These technologies are vital, as SpaceX and Blue Origin are involved in massive satellite projects.
Despite the risk, private satellites are still being launched as of this writing.
Availability of Launches
Today, it’s not too difficult to launch a private satellite. Many other companies can help with the task and may offer services like planning, maintenance, and control. Government permission is, of course, necessary where required.
An example is Open Cosmos, a startup in the U.K. specializing in nanosatellites weighing up to 20 kilograms. Usually, a satellite launch requires years of planning and execution, but Open Cosmos claims it only needs 10 months and offers a one-stop solution. As a result, it successfully delivered satellites to their orbits in 2021.
A New Age
How are satellites launched today? Many private companies can now send your satellite to space and customize it. As technology advances, the costs of doing so will likely decrease. So, besides obtaining government permission, you can reach out to a private company and start discussing a plan.