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The Role of Small Satellites in NASA and NOAA Earth Observation Programs
Launch vehicle cost per unit mass to EOS orbit.
Achieving the full promise of small satellites will require the availability of reliable U.S. launch vehicles with a full range of performance capabilities. This is currently not the case: There is a significant gap in capability between the Pegasus/Athena/Taurus launch vehicles and the Delta II. Plans to fill this gap by numerous suppliers are encouraging, as are the efforts by launch vehicle suppliers to provide a range of fairing sizes to accommodate a larger percentage of potential missions. Foreign launch vehicles may also ultimately play a role in filling this gap, should U.S. policy change.
Early experience with the new small launch vehicles has included a number of failures—probably due in part to a desire to minimize development costs for these commercial ventures. Continued development should overcome the difficulties and yield a suitable balance between cost and reliability. However, it will take some time—and, likely, some additional failures—before any of these launch vehicles establish a reliability record approaching that of the Delta II.