CubeSat Launch Costs

By SatCatalog | Published on Dec. 10, 2022

The cost of launching CubeSats and small satellites into space has become significantly more affordable, influenced by new launch providers, improvements in launch vehicles, and the widespread industry adoption of rideshare programs. Launch service providers, such as SpaceX, Rocket Lab, and SpaceFlight, offer services to launch and deploy secondary spacecraft at a reduced cost.

What is a CubeSat

A CubeSat, also known as a nanosatellite, is a miniature satellite that conforms to the CubeSat standard, which specifies its dimensions and design. CubeSats come in several sizes, with the most common being 1U, 3U, 6U, and 12U. The "U" in these size designations stands for "unit," and refers to the size of a CubeSat in terms of the number of 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm cubic units that it is composed of. CubeSats must adhere to specific guidelines such as CubeSat Design Specifications.

CubeSats are often used for orbital research by universities and private companies due to their low cost and short development time compared to traditional satellites. However, they have increasingly been used for commercial purposes such as earth imaging and communications. Overall, CubeSats offer an affordable and accessible option for those seeking to explore space.

Rideshare Programs

Rideshare programs allow multiple payloads ride on the same launch vehicle, offers a multitude of benefits for those seeking access to space. One major advantage is cost savings; by sharing the launch vehicle, rideshare allows smaller organizations and startups to enter the market at a lower financial barrier. Rideshare is commonly used throughout the space industry, in commercial and private companies, space agencies, and universities. In addition, rideshare can lead to more frequent launches as multiple payloads can be sent up at once. This not only increases efficiency, but also offers a wider range of options for spacecraft in terms of preferred orbit and launch window. Ultimately, rideshare promises increased accessibility and flexibility within the space industry. However, it should be noted that rideshare does come with some limitations and tradeoffs, such as possible delays in scheduling and strict requirements for compatible payloads. Rideshare proves to be a valuable tool for expanding opportunities in the realm of space exploration and research. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket offers rideshare slots for low earth orbit for 1U, 3U, 6U, 12U, and SmallSat.

CubeSat Rideshare Launch Costs

When it comes to launching a CubeSat into space, an important factor to consider is the cost of a rideshare. This cost is largely a function of size CubeSat, target orbit and location, and launch vehicle. There may be some additional costs associated with launch ground services such as integration or payload electrical connectivity at the launch pad. Overall, the price of a rideshare for a CubeSat can vary depending on these factors, but it remains an affordable option for those looking to send their own small satellite into orbit.

SpaceX Launch Costs

Through SpaceX's rideshare program, they charge $275,000 (FY22) for a 50 kg SmallSat/CubeSat to a sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), with an additional cost of $45,500 per kg for a Falcon 9 launch. SpaceX also provides other launch services such as launch insurance, separation springs for deployment, and additional fuel.

Rocket Lab

In general, Rocket Lab's launch costs are competitive with other launch providers and are designed to be affordable for small satellite operators. The company offers a range of options for launching CubeSats, including dedicated rideshare missions, which allow multiple CubeSats to be launched on the same rocket at a reduced cost. A dedicated launch typically costs $7-$7.5 million (FY22) per launch to LEO or SSO.


NanoRacks is another company that offers a variety of launch services to get your spacecraft and payloads into orbit. Such services include CubeSat Deployment from the International Space Station (ISS), mounting on the ISS, and launch rideshare options. The cost for CubeSat deployment from the ISS or ISS visiting vehicle is about $90,000 (FY2022) per 1 U CubeSat, meaning a 3U will cost $270,000, and a 6U $540,000. Additional deployment services can be added such as CubeSat Safety and Verification for deployment and mission operations.

NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative

The NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) is a program run by NASA and offers opportunities for small satellite projects, including CubeSats, to fly as secondary payloads on NASA missions. The program is open to educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, and other eligible entities, and provides a low-cost means for these organizations to access space and conduct research or technology demonstrations in orbit. Through the CSLI program, NASA provides CubeSat developers with access to launch opportunities on a variety of NASA launch vehicles. The program also provides technical assistance and support to participating organizations, and offers opportunities for participants to collaborate with NASA on space-related research and technology development. Overall, the NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative is an important program that helps to advance the development of small satellite technology and provides opportunities for a wide range of organizations to conduct space-based research and technology demonstrations.

Launch Service Providers

When it comes to launch services, SpaceX has become a household name thanks to their successful Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. However, they are not the only players in the game. Rocket Lab, known for their Electron rocket, offers small satellite launch options with a focus on high frequency launch opportunities. SpaceFlight provides launch services through partnerships with multiple launch vehicle providers, including SpaceX, Rocket Lab, and even traditional launch power player NASA. In recent years, there have also been advancements in rideshare launch options, which allow smaller satellites to hitch a ride on larger launch vehicles headed for similar orbits around earth or even the moon. As the demand for access to orbit continues to grow, these launch service providers offer unique solutions for getting satellites and other payloads off the ground. And with new developments such as SpaceX's Starship launch vehicle in the works, the future of space exploration is sure to be an exciting one.

What's Next?

The cost of launching small satellites, including CubeSats, into space has become more affordable thanks to new launch providers, improved launch vehicles, and the widespread adoption of the practice of rideshare. Over the next decade, launch vehicle companies will further refine their launch systems, ultimately making access to space more affordable and allowing more organizations to build and launch their satellites.