A next big thing in the space business could be tiny rockets

In June, NASA tested a booster for the most powerful rocket it has ever tried to build, the Space Launch System (SLS). The booster was more than 150 feet long, producing 3.6 million pounds of force, during a ground test in Utah. The whole rocket is so expensive it will probably only fly twice in the next four years, if at all. 
A month later, in the Mojave Desert, a very different test took place, involving a prototype rocket just 12 feet long. Built by a small company called Vector Space, it flew just a few thousand feet in the air, successfully demonstrating 3D printed engine parts that will plug into a full-scale version just 42 feet long, not even a third of the size of one of SLS booster.
If its designers are right, the Vector 1, as the small rocket is called, will fly hundreds of times before the SLS becomes operational, making the company a bundle along the way.
The buzz in the space business isn’t always about bigger rockets and farther journeys. Today, it’s about downright small rockets, practically bespoke, and designed to go just a few hundred or thousand miles.
Entrepreneurs are excited about small satellites for the same reason you may be excited about Pokemon Go: Engineers can now cram a huge amount of processing and sensing ability into an electronics component that barely weighs anything, letting you do fun things (catch Pokemon, snap satellite pictures) very cheaply in places you could not before (sidewalks across America, low-Earth orbit).
Advances like these make it possible to do more with smaller satellites, a key savings in a business where installing your infrastructure costs, at a minimum, thousands of dollars per kilogram.
Numerous companies already have sprung up, among them Spires, Planet Labs, Planetary Resources, DigitalGlobe, and BlackSky Global, promising a brisk business for launching small satellites, which could be used for purposes ranging from photography to communications to tracking.
Instead of dozens of small satellites launched annually, analysts are now forecasting hundreds of small satellites heading to orbit each year. The next question is how to get them up there. Most of the time, small satellites are launched in groups by the big space-access providers, like Arianespace or ULA, but it’s tough finding room on one of their launches, especially when each company may fly just a dozen missions in a year.
The incumbent rocket companies flying the big cargo missions aren’t ignoring the market trends. And they all have operational rockets in an industry where bringing a functioning product to market rarely happens on schedule.
SpaceX’s obsession with reusability has it convinced it will drive competitors with smaller rockets out of business. It has also forced its competitors to think more about lowering launch costs and using every inch of their rockets efficiently. United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that performs most US space launches, has developed a “cubesat” carrier (designed for small, cube-shaped satellites) that can attach to its Atlas rocket; and it plans to deploy it widely.
“Every Atlas launch vehicle would have one of these carriers on the back end and provide the total current equivalent of the world’s cubesat rides to space, in one to three years,” ULA CEO Tory Bruno told Quartz.
“I think there is going to be greater and greater utility in smaller and smaller satellites,” Bruno added, describing a scenario in which low-Earth orbit “becomes the app store of space, [offering] all sorts of economic activities there, things we haven’t even thought about today.”