The market of satellite launches will drastically change in the coming decade. While being nowadays monopolised by massive and expensive satellites, requiring heavy launchers of the size of the Proton M, Delta IV or Ariane 5, it is foreseen that another product will take a large share of the global market: small satellites in the 50-150 kg range. This growth will be mainly driven by two factors.
On the one hand, miniaturisation makes possible, with such platforms, applications that a few years ago were feasible only with larger satellites. Furthermore, the availability of COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) components, which can be used in space, makes small satellite more and more affordable. Finally, small satellites are considered for a wide range of application, such as communication, Earth observation, remote sensing, scientific experiments and in-orbit technology demonstration.
On the other hand, several projects of new constellations made of a few hundred (OneWeb Constellation) to a few thousands (Space X Constellation) of small satellites have been announced, raising even more the number of projected launches of those small satellites. According to recent surveys, several hundreds of small satellites with a mass lower than 100 kg are projected in the 2014-2020 timeframe and the demand will continue to rise.
However, there currently exists no launch system that adequately addresses the market of small satellites in this payload mass range. Indeed, the only existing possibility for the access to space of small satellites below 150 kg is to be launched as a secondary passenger (rideshare / piggy-back) on a heavy launcher, which has severe constraints since the target orbit and the launch date are fixed by the primary payload. A dedicated launch system without these constraints would enable the development of small satellite applications, provided it is also affordable and reliable.
What makes ALTAIR different
The ALTAIR launch vehicle is designed through a cost-oriented global optimisation process. The system is composed of three elements:
- A reusable unmanned aircraft carrier designed specifically for the launch mission. This element is particularly important as ALTAIR is – so far – the only micro launcher project to use an unmanned aircraft;
- An expendable launcher associating green propellant hybrid propulsion, lightweight composite structure, innovative avionics and a versatile upper-stage;
- A cost-effective ground segment.
Globally, ALTAIR cost-effectiveness is achieved jointly through the concept of air-launch, the choice of efficient technologies for rocket propulsion, structure and avionics, structure and avionics, and an overall optimisation process.
IN A NUTSHELL
PROJECT KEY POINTS
ALTAIR’s strategic objective is to demonstrate the feasibility of a new cost effective and reliable space launch system for the access to Low-Earth Orbit (400-1000 km) of small satellites.