Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Shrinking Market for Sounding Rockets

Last May, at the 15th Canadian Astronautics and Space Institute (CASI) ASTRO 2010 conference, several Magellan Aerospace employees presented a paper on "Bristol Aerospace’s Black Brant and Excalibur Sub-Orbital Rockets."
Walter Heikkila and Sid Penstone with 
the Black Brant nose cone in 1960.
According to the abstract:
With the Space Shuttle era winding to a close and the limited opportunities to conduct science on the International Space Station (ISS), it is anticipated that there will be renewed interest in the use of sub-orbital rockets to perform science and build capacity. 
But while over 800 Black Brant rockets have been launched in various configurations since 1957 and Magellan (which purchased Bristol Aerospace in 1997) might indeed be hoping for a continuation of this ongoing revenue stream, the sounding rocket is likely to be fairly quick superseded by the new generation of commercial and reusable suborbital vehicles presently under development.

These include vehicles developed by and/or promoted through private companies including:
  • Blue Origin, a privately-funded company recently awarded $3.7 million in funding in 2009 by NASA under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program to development concepts and technologies to support future human spaceflight operations. The company has also built and flown a testbed of its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft design at their Culberson County, Texas facility.
  • Space Adventures which presently organizes orbital trips to the ISS and plans to offer suborbital and lunar spaceflights to scientists and the general public with US based suborbital vehicle developer Armadillo Aerospace.
According to the October 12th, 2009 Universe Today article "Suborbital Could Be ‘Next Big Thing’ for Space Science:"
Sub-orbital science appears to be a win-win situation for both scientists and the nascent commercial spaceflight companies. For researchers, the flights represent cheaper and more frequent access to space than anything NASA can provide with the space shuttle, parabolic flights or sounding rockets.

For companies like Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems, Virgin Galactic, and XCOR, adding science to their payloads represents the possibility of an additional $100 million a year in fares — roughly equivalent to the fares that would be paid out by 500 passengers.
According to the Universe Today article, experiments could include measurements on almost anything, external or internal above the atmosphere that doesn't need the Hubble Space Telescope to take a reading.

There are also obvious industrial and chemical experiments relating to how bubbles, fluids and particles interact in microgravity with implications for aerospace engine design, pharmaceuticals and other areas that are likely to be of interest to industry that simply could not be done before

The Space Business Blog put together a business case study of suborbital research payloads in February 2010 under the title "Suborbital Cargo Agent."

The case study focused on building a small company to negotiate low costs per flights and preferred provider status from the available suborbital launch operators for cubesats (tiny miniaturized satellites) of standardized shape and weight which would be serviced and installed through a system integrator (in this case, Kentucky Space, a non-profit consortium of private and public organizations focused on low cost, innovative space missions).

Essentially, the company made quick profits under a variety of scenario's and saved clients substantial money over what they would have needed to pay to engage traditional suborbital rocket facilities. There was also a faster turnaround time compared to what was traditionally possible with standard sounding rockets.

This is something that the business people at Magellan Aerospace might want to take a look at the next time they update their business plan.

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