Rocket Lab has emerged as one of the select few in the small satellite launch business. They seem to be a market leader. With Virgin Orbit's successful mission to orbit, they've joined the club. SpaceX, while focused on larger payloads, has developed a ride sharing mission approach that makes them a power player in that market segment, too. They were scheduled to launch a Falcon 9 this morning that was to carry a record 133 satellites into orbit (the current record is 103 satellites carried on one mission) but it was scrubbed due to weather on the Cape. It's set for tomorrow at 10:00AM EST on the Cape. They've already carried smaller ride share missions, two or three satellites, on their Starlink missions.
Author Jamie Groh at Teslarati, thinks the number of launchers is going to grow this year.
Expect SpaceX, Rocket Lab, and Virgin Orbit to be joined by other small launchers looking to break into the market sooner rather than later. Another NASA Venture Class Launch Services provider, Astra – a California-based small satellite launcher that launches from Kodiak, Alaska – narrowly missed beating out Virgin Orbit for the third-place slot in the competition to deliver small satellites to orbit.Astra believes the fix to achieve orbit is easy and they're planning to launch for paying customers on the next mission. And that's just getting started. Firefly, as reported at the start of the year, is preparing the first launch of their Alpha booster from Vandenberg Air Force Base, "soon."
On December 15, 2020, Astra launched its small orbital-class vehicle, Rocket 3.2, for the second time from Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska. The vehicle soared past the Kármán line with the upper stage reaching its targeted altitude of 380 kilometers at 7.2 km/sec but falling just shy of achieving orbital velocity at 7.68 km/sec.
In December 2020, Astra and Firefly were awarded Venture Class Launch Services Demonstration 2 firm fixed-priced contracts by NASA’s Launch Services Program along with a third small class launcher, California based Relativity Space. Astra received $3.9 million in funding while Firefly was awarded $9.8 million and Relativity received $3 million to place CubeSats in Low Earth Orbit.
Firefly Alpha, first stage, prior to shipment to Vandenberg. Firefly Aerospace photo.
The linked Teslarati article points out that there is a movement to smaller satellites such as CubeSats because it's more accessible to smaller companies, college research, and potentially individual researchers. Lower cost access for these small payloads will help them and potentially create even more to launch.
I think it's safe to say we have broader access to space than ever before, and it's getting broader.