United Launch Alliance Offers Free Rides to Student-Built Satellites

By Stew Magnuson

 In an effort to encourage more students to enter the aerospace field, United Launch Alliance will offer free rides to orbit for small satellites built by universities, the company announced Nov. 19.

“I have made it a personal goal to make space more accessible to everyone,” ULA president and CEO Tory Bruno said at the Colorado state capitol building, while announcing the program.

ULA, a partnership between The Boeing Co., and Lockheed Martin, will provide up to 12 berths on an Atlas 5 rocket for university teams that have cubesats with experimental payloads. Cubesats generally weigh about three pounds and are sent to low-Earth orbit. They are used for low-cost experiments or to test new technologies that may end up on larger spacecraft.

The problem is that university science, technology and engineering programs have to wait for long periods to find available space on rocket launches, Bruno said. The lack of “rideshare” space is stunting the growth of cubesat and small satellite programs, he said.
“We are going to change that,” he said. The program will double the global capacity to launch cubesats when it begins in 2017, he said.

The two launches slated so far will have berths for up to 24 cubesats in a special carrier that is located in the second stage of the rocket. Six free slots will be offered to universities per launch, a fact sheet stated.

“Since its inception, ULA has been committed to science, technology, engineering and math education initiatives and programs such as this help to motivate, educate and develop our next generation of rocket scientists and space entrepreneurs,” said Bruno.

The first confirmed university to have a slot on the program will be the University of Colorado-Boulder, he said. ULA has not come up with a name for the initiative, but is inviting students and universities to make suggestions.

Other interested U.S accredited colleges and universities have until Dec. 18 to notify ULA that they are interested in participating, a company press release said. In early 2016, ULA will release a request for proposal for the first competitive cubesat launch slots. The selected universities will be announced in August 2016, the statement said.

How long the program will last remains in question because ULA earlier in the week announced that it couldn’t compete for an Air Force contract to launch GPS satellites beginning in 2018 because it will run out of Atlas 5 engines.

Congress banned the further purchase of Russian-manufactured RD-180 rocket engines for national security launches in the aftermath of the Russian actions in the Ukraine and Crimea. ULA has asked for a waiver until a U.S.-built replacement engine can be developed, but hasn’t received one yet.

ULA in a statement listed three reasons why it could not bid on the contract.

The RFP required the company to certify that funds from other government contracts will not benefit the GPS III launch mission. “ULA does not have the accounting systems in place to make that certification, and therefore cannot submit a compliant proposal,” it said.

“In addition, the RFP’s lowest price technically acceptable structure allows for no ability to differentiate between competitors on the basis of critical factors such as reliability, schedule certainty, technical capability and past performance,” it stated.

“Further, under the restrictions imposed by the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, ULA does not currently have any Atlas engines available to bid and therefore is unable to submit a timely proposal.”

Declining to bid on the program leaves rival launch provider SpaceX as the only company certified to launch national security payloads.

“We look forward to working with the Air Force to address the obstacles to ULA’s participation in future launch competitions to enable a full and fair competition,” ULA said.


Topics: Research and Development, Space

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