Picosatellites have launched on such a mix of rockets that it is hard to categorize a single approach. Most AMSAT and university projects ride piggyback as an extra tiny payload on an existing space mission. These rocket launches are negotiated by people with access—people who know other rocket-launching people. NASA, Japan’s JAXA, and other space agencies occasionally run launch opportunities for picosatellites. CubeSats, despite becoming a standard architecture, do not have a standard launch provider. Like any picosatellite, they rely on who you know to launch. Some have launched via Russian converted ICBMs, others lofted up to the ISS, still others use the piggyback method.
Now that we are entering a new commercial space age, we hope access improves. The above methods historically involve costs from $50,000 to $150,000 for just the launch fee (according to CubeSat co-director Jordi Pulg-Suari).
NanoRacks LLC likens itself to a “no-frills airline” and is brokering CubeSat launches up to the ISS from $25,000 (for a 1U CubeSat for an educational client), with commercial clients being charged a higher rate of $50,000, and non-US clients being charged even more.
The checklist from the NanoRacks website lists some interesting services worth evaluating for any launch provider: