Reusability on the horizon for small satellite launch providers

by Thomas Burghardt

During October 2021’s Small Payload Ride Share Association Symposium, a collection of small satellite launch providers gave updates on current and future projects. These providers range from those preparing for first flights, others in the middle of their test flight program, and still others that have already delivered operational payloads. A common theme was having eyes on reusability as future evolutions for small satellite launch systems.

Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab was the first of a wave of small satellite launch providers to begin delivering customer payloads to orbit. Starting with the first successful Electron launch in January 2018, Rocket Lab has successfully completed 18 missions to orbit, including returning to flight after two launch failures in July 2020 and May 2021.

Factors such as standing down to investigate these failures, COVID-19 pandemic effects in New Zealand, and delays in AFSS certification by NASA have prevented Rocket Lab from ramping up launch cadence. Rocket Lab’s Autonomous Flight Safety System (AFSS), sometimes referred to as an Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS), has been flying on Electron rockets launched from Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, but must be certified by NASA to be operated on launches from Launch Complex 2 at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

“The Owl’s Night Begins” launches in December 2020 – via Rocket Lab

The hardware component of the system, the Autonomous Flight Termination Unit (AFTU) which actually destroys a vehicle that is flying off course, has completed development. NASA and Rocket Lab are currently working on the software component of the system, which must be certified to fly from Wallops, Virginia, a relatively more populated area than Rocket Lab’s New Zealand range.

The Senior Vice President for Global Launch Services, Lars Hoffman, says that Rocket Lab expects NASA to certify the software component by the end of 2021. Rocket Lab is also in talks with other small satellite launch providers about selling the AFSS for use on other vehicles.

Electron is scheduled to make its next flight no earlier than November 11, a mission named “Love At First Insight” which will carry a pair of Gen-2 satellites for BlackSky. This will be followed by “A Data With Destiny” no earlier than November 27 with another pair of Gen-2 spacecraft.

Both of these missions will launch from LC-1 in New Zealand. Rocket Lab has not yet announced when a mission will utilize the new second pad at Mahia, LC-1B, rather than the LC-1A pad which has hosted every Electron launch to date.

Electron is being evolved to become a partially reusable rocket, with two soft splashdowns under parachute already achieved. Future recoveries are planned to use a helicopter for mid-air capture.

Rocket Lab is now also developing a larger launch vehicle intended to deploy constellations of small satellites. This vehicle, named Neutron, will feature a reusable first stage recovered via propulsive landing.

Launch Complex 1, including pads 1A (top) and 1B (right) in Mahia, New Zealand – via Rocket Lab

Hoffman says that Rocket Lab has looked at partnering with other propulsion developers for this new rocket, and believes that Rocket Lab has found “a solution that is a perfect fit for us.” The majority of manufacturing for Neutron will occur in the United States, with some in New Zealand.

An announcement with more details about the Neutron rocket is expected within the coming months. These details will hopefully shed some light on just how reusable Neutron will be since a “fully reusable” rocket is reportedly being investigated in comparison to the partial reuse concept that was originally revealed.

Virgin Orbit

The second and most recent small launch provider to achieve orbit is Virgin Orbit. Similar to Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit fell short on their first launch attempt but found success on their second. Virgin’s air-launched LauncherOne rocket has had two successful missions, both occurring earlier this year.

The third LauncherOne mission, the STP-27VPB mission for the United States Space Force’s Space Test Program, is slated to occur in the coming weeks from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. While both of Virgin Orbit’s previous trips to orbit have achieved 60.7-degree inclinations, the next flight will target a 45-degree inclination using a drop location farther offshore.

LauncherOne’s first stage ignites on the successful Launch Demo 2 mission in January 2021 – via Virgin Orbit

Wade McElroy, the Chief of Staff at Virgin Orbit’s government contracting subsidiary VOX Space, said that future missions will continue to move the drop point even further from the coast.

Virgin Orbit is also planning to activate additional launch sites, starting with Andersen Air Force Base in Guam which will support future Space Test Program missions. While McElroy could not announce any firm plans for more carrier aircraft, Virgin Orbit’s current fleet of one, a Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl, is “a constraint.”

Reuse is being evaluated as a potential evolution for LauncherOne, with one potential design including a parachute recovery of the rocket’s first stage. Future possibilities also include a significantly evolved rocket named LauncherTwo which could also incorporate reusability. But these plans are currently preliminary, with no immediate plans for recovery attempts.


Astra has conducted three orbital launch attempts but is still working on achieving orbit. The next attempt is scheduled for no earlier than October 27 from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska.

Rocket 3’s upper stage ignites on the way to orbit – via Mack Crawford for NSF/L2

Like both Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit, Astra is planning to expand operations to multiple launch sites, adding an unspecified second site later this year. This is enabled, in part, by the simple and easily transportable design for both the launch vehicle and its supporting ground equipment, which is all shipped to the launch site in standard shipping containers.

A point in contrast to the other small satellite launchers is reusability, which Astra is not interested in pursuing.

Instead, Astra aims to scale the production of expendable rockets in order to enable daily access to orbit. This goes hand in hand with using economies of scale to keep launch costs low. Adding recovery and reuse systems would add complexity to the launch vehicles that can instead be built cheaply to fly expendable.

Firefly Aerospace

Firefly Aerospace is the most recent small satellite launch company to make a maiden flight. The Alpha rocket lifted off for the first time in September, suffering an engine shutdown 15 seconds after launch which resulted in the termination of the flight.

While the investigation into this failure is ongoing, co-founder Eric Salwan stated that no major design changes should be needed for the next flight. Save for the propellant valve which closed and prompted the shutdown, all of the rocket’s other systems performed well on the maiden flight.

The debris model for Alpha is being redone as a result of some pieces of the terminated rocket floating downwind to populated areas. A slight change to the mission profile is being considered to mitigate these concerns. The second flight of Alpha will be another demonstration flight with deployable educational payloads onboard.

Once Alpha achieves orbit, Firefly plans to refine its manufacturing methods and evolve the vehicle’s performance. Currently, it takes two to three months of manual carbon fiber layup to produce an Alpha rocket. A planned move to an automated layup will decrease this time to less than a week, says Salwan.

Alpha is expected to see its mass to orbit capability increase from 1,000 kilograms to 1,300 kilograms. A second, larger launcher named Beta will further improve Firefly’s mass to orbit performance, increasing from Alpha’s 6-foot (1.83 meters) diameter to Beta’s 12-foot (3.66 meters) diameter.

A slide shown by co-founder Eric Salwan at the 2021 Small Payload Ride Share Association Symposium – via Firefly Aerospace

Beta will also feature reusability, with the rocket’s first stage planned for recovery via vertical landing. Alpha may also be evolved to incorporate reusability in the future.

ABL Space Systems

Still working toward an initial orbital launch attempt is ABL Space Systems and the RS-1 launch vehicle. The first flight is scheduled for later this year, following continued testing at Edwards Air Force Base and the Mojave Air and Space Port.

The launch is planned to be conducted from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska. Due to the standardized and transportable nature of ABL’s launch system, similar to Astra, many launch sites have the potential to serve future missions.

Also like Astra, ABL has not made any mention to date of incorporating reusability into their vehicles.


Relativity Space has also not yet made its first launch attempt, but the company has big plans and a strong customer manifest. The expendable Terran 1 rocket’s first flight is now scheduled for the first quarter of 2022 from SLC-16 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The environmental assessment for this launch site has recently been completed.

A second launch site at Vandenberg Space Force Base is also in planning.

A larger and fully reusable launch vehicle, Terran R, will be powered by a reusable variant of the Aeon engine named Aeon R.

Relativity, like Rocket Lab and Firefly, is leveraging initially small launch vehicles to introduce reusable medium-lift vehicles in the future. Virgin Orbit, Astra, and ABL appear to remain focused on high cadence for expendable small launches, at least for now.

(Lead render via Mack Crawford for NSF/L2)

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