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Lockheed-Boeing JV to fly into satellite launching space

November 23
8:20 PM 2015

United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture (JV) between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, is entering into miniature satellites segment. ULA is planning to launch a CubeSat carrier by mid 2017. ULA will explore business potential in launching small satellites for earth imaging, weather forecasting, internet relays, etc. 

Miniature satellites are known as CubeSats and it's a booming market in the Space, rocket and aviation industry. SpaceWorks Enterprises, an Atlanta-based consultancy, forecasts the global market for CubeSat launches will have robust growth in the near future. 

Tory Bruno, Chief Executive, ULA, said that CubeSat carrier would have berths for 24 spacecraft aboard its workhorse Atlas 5 rockets. ULA sees robust growth prospects in small satellites segment as the commercial interest in earth imaging, weather forecast, internet relays and other services are growing.

According to SpaceWorks, about 543 micro satellites weighing upto 110 pounds (50kg) required launching services globally. The number of small satellites launched in 2013 was 92. Several startups are also entering into this space. NASA has awarded CubeSat launch contract valuing $17.1 million to three startups. 

Bruno also said that the company would launch some CubeSats for free of cost as well. ULA may offer free launch service to The University of Colorado in Boulder. ULA will put a CubeSat on an Atlas 5 rocket for free of cost.

"This program is open to all universities nationwide, and we're delighted that CU-Boulder students have been offered the first free CubeSat launch slot in 2017," said Philip DiStefano, chancellor at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

ULA is planning to get into the growing market for small satellites with applications in education, scientific research and commercial interests. Bruno further said that "starting a year-and-a-half from now, we're going to start placing on our Atlas rocket a standard CubeSat carrier with as many as 24 berths for CubeSats."

Several global companies are engaged in developing small satellite networks. Lockheed-Boeing launch alliance will face competition from several companies. For instance, Google's SkyBox Imaging, BlackSky Global, Planet Labs, UrtheCast, PlanetiQ, GeoOptics and Spire Global are developing small satellite networks.

ULA is the biggest supplier of rockets to the US military. The company is enhancing rocket engine work with Jeff Bezos' space company. Bezos is the founder of Amazon.com inc. ULA is considering an offer from Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings for $2billion. Aerojet develops a rocket engine, which is an alternative to ULA's Vulcan engine.  

John Olds, Chief Executive, SpaceWorks, said: "ULA launches are still relatively infrequent and the places the rockets go are predetermined months. if not year, ahead of time by the primary customer. So I think the dedicated small satellite launcher is still needed." It's estimated that ULA's charges are to the tune of $100,000 to launch a one unit CubeSat weighing three pounds (1.3kg) with a size of 4-inch (10cm) cube shaped spacecraft. 

It's estimated that over 300 CubeSats have been put into space since 2003. Stanford University and California Polytechnic State University conceptualized the idea of small satellites in 1999. 

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