Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Sixteen More Organizations Currently Developing Small-Sat Launchers

          By Chuck Black

As discussed in the October 3rd, 2016 post, "Sixteen Organizations Currently Developing Small-Sat Launchers," a multitude of start-ups, legacy space companies and national space agencies are currently developing small-sat launchers and/or components using a variety of cutting edge and/or proven technologies.

While "rocket science" is still complex, the knowledge it takes to build one is becoming more widely available. As well, not all launchers are microsat launchers. As outlined in the October 9th, 2016 Reddit Space post, "Rockets of the World circa 2025," there are also dozens of other rockets capable of hoisting larger payloads to orbit either flying now or expected to be coming into service over the next decade. Graphic c/o Skrabek.

That last article highlighted sixteen of those organizations and their launchers. Here are sixteen more. They include:
  • The Rocket Crafters Intrepid Rocket Family - As outlined in the September 15th, 2016 Florida Today post, "Rocket Crafters aiming for weekly launches," the company "is developing hybrid rockets to lift small satellites — micro and cubesats — into space" They say their rockets will make launches safer, more affordable and more accessible to companies and colleges through the use of 3D printing technologies. They've also partnered with the Florida Institute of Technology and expect to begin testing as soon as funding is secured. 
  • The Rocket Lab Electron Rocket - This US based company, founded in New Zealand in 2006 by CEO and CTO Peter Beck (with internet entrepreneur Mark Rocket as co-director and seed investor), is considered one of the favored players in this group, because of their adequate funding, large project team and the perception that their listed capabilities and timelines are an accurate representation of reality. The Rocket Lab Electron rocket is expected of being capable of delivering payloads of 150 kg to a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit. The Electron test program is scheduled to run over the second half of 2016, with commercial flights commencing in 2017. Those flights are scheduled to begin in 2017 and are expected to cost $4.9Mln USD ($6.46Mln CDN) per launch. 
  • The Rocket Star Aero-spike Engine - A New York based company with an idea for a low-cost, re-usable aero-spike engine, a good promotional video, but seemingly not much else, at least as described in the November 19th, 2015 Popular Mechanics post, "RocketStar Wants To Make Going To Space a One-Step Process; First, they've got to make their rocket fly." According to the article, a" sounding rocket will launch sometime in the next few months (the date is still being worked out with NASA), and will provide an in-air demonstration of the aerospike rocket. Once it reaches its ceiling of 10,000 feet, it will break apart into four pieces and return to the ground safely via drogue parachute." Almost a year later, we're still waiting.
  • The Scorpius Space Launch Company Demi Sprite - Once called "Hawthorne's other rocket company," at least according to the November 2nd, 2015 Space News post, "Hawthorne’s Other Rocket Company," the current corporate focus is on the design and sale of all-composite cryogenic pressure vessels (a useful component of liquid fueled rockets) but not the design and sale of complete rocket systems. According to online accounts, funds for the Scorpius (now Micrososm) Demi Sprite began drying up in 2012, but the company is included in this list because of its listing in the September 23rd, 2015 Parabolic Arc post on "Multiple Small Satellite Launch Vehicles Under Development."
  • The SpaceLS Prometheus Launcher - This UK based company is supposedly building a hydrogen peroxide (HTP) and kerosene based rocket, based upon the British Black Arrow design which successfully launched the 66 kg Prospero satellite into low Earth orbit in 1971. The company seems to have no sources of funding for the research and development required to move forward and only drawings to prove its engineering acumen. Those drawing will won't matter as much as its future success in raising funds for R&D. 
  • The SpaceFleet Association EARL Project - The Spacefleet Association is "part of a consortium" which has submitted a bid to the European Commission for Horizon 2020 development funding to support the EARL-D5 programme. As outlined in the April 4th, 2015 post, "Spacefleet: EARL-D3 successful test flight," the association reported a successful test flight of the 0.75m EARL-D3 subscale RLV demonstrator at the Malina military firing range in Romania, in April 2015. According to their website, the "Spacefleet EARL Project will demonstrate that a payload can be lifted into space (later, into orbit) at low cost, using three near-identical autonomously-piloted, rocket-powered lifting bodies, which can be re-used many times."
  • The Stofiel Aerospace Bella High Altitude Balloon Launcher - So far unfunded, but stratospheric balloons are cheap, at least when compared to rockets, and this company, created by four Kent State University military veterans, plans to use them as a first stage, in order to provide "on site" micro/nanosat launch services. They may even have a useful market niche. As outlined in the October 4th, 2016 Design Engineering post, "Canadian Space Agency announces Stratospheric Balloon Flight research grant opportunity," the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and others utilize balloon launches as a research and development component for testing the performance of components in vacuum, as a preliminary to integrating them into a satellite.
  • The Swiss Space Systems (S3) SOAR Project - Another air launch system, utilizing a "Zero-G certified Airbus A300," flying in a parabolic arc to launch SOAR,  a "partially" reusable air-launched space plane launch system designed to launch small satellites on a suborbital or orbital trajectory. The company is privately owned/ incorporated in Switzerland, and funded through a variety of sometimes unclear methodologies. It also possesses substantial Russian connections, including the NK-39 engine which will be used for SOAR (developed by Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency) and a contract with the Russian firm RKK Energia to develop the upper stage. The September 14th, 2016 post, "Jaussi was threatened before attack," said that Pascal Jaussi, the chief executive of S3 "who was brutally attacked several weeks ago is out of the hospital and says he had been receiving threats before the attack. He also admitted that his company is facing financial trouble."
  • The Ursa Major Technologies Hadley and Ripley Rocket Engines - A small group of Colorado based ex-Blue Origin employees currently without major funding. To compensate, they have decided to focus on engine development for other rocket builders. The Ursa Major Hadley "is a 5,000 lbf sea level thrust, liquid oxygen and RP-1 engine." The Ursa Major Ripley engine is "a 35,000 lbf class, liquid oxygen and hydrocarbon engine" capable of being configured to carry 150kg payloads to low earth orbit as required under the October 15th, 2015 NASA Venture Class Launch Services Awards, which doesn't mean that they necessarily plan to build entire launchers, but might suggest that they plan to continue to build engines for others.
  • The Virgin Galactic LauncherOne - Another air launch to orbit design, this time using knowledge derived from the Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne, which won the $10Mln USD ($13.2Mln CDN) Ansari X Prize in 2004. Perceived as having the funding, expertise and knowledge needed to (mostly) fulfill their announced roll-out and timeline, the LauncherOne system is an an expendable, two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket air-launched from a White Knight Two carrier aircraft in a similar configuration to that used by Orbital Sciences' Pegasus. Flights are expected to begin sometime in 2017.
  • The XCor Aerospace Lynx Mk III Suborbital Spacecraft - This partially reusable design, was intended to use a standard Lynx Mk II suborbital production spacecraft with an additional 650 kg (1,430 lb) external dorsal mounted pod large enough to hold a two-stage carrier to launch a single micro-satellite (or multiple nano-sats) into low-Earth orbit. But, as outlined in the May 31st, 2016 Space News post, "XCOR lays off employees to focus on engine development," those plans were put on hold as the company pivoted to focus on a liquid hydrogen engine being developed under contract with United Launch Alliance (ULA). The current plans could certainly change again, as new funding becomes available.
  • Zero Point Frontiers Corporation (ZPFO) - Founded in 2008, and not so much a designer of small-sat launchers as it is a subcontractor to others, ZPFC started out assisting government and commercial agencies with studies relating to heavy lift launch vehicles and their use beyond Earth orbit under the cancelled NASA Constellation program. More recently, the company has worked with SpaceX, Blue Origin and Firefly Space Systems. There is no doubt that ZPFO, while currently not working on a dedicated, in-house launching system, could certainly build one quickly if there was a client requirement.
  • The Zero2infinity Bloostar Launcher - A high altitude balloon based launcher system, designed by a privately held Spanish company. As outlined in the March 23rd, 2016 Via Satellite post, "Zero2infinity Lays Out Goals for Balloon-Rocket Launch System," the vehicle is designed to carry a 75-kilogram payloads to a 600-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) with a price tag of approximately $4.5Mln US ($6Mln CDN). The vehicle’s first orbital mission is currently slated for the second half of 2018 and is scheduled to be preceded by numerous suborbital development launches. As well, at least according to the article, the project has collected letters of intent worth roughly $268.4Mln USD ($356Mln CDN) in order to fund the project.
The number of non-US based smallset launch developers is noteworthy. As outlined in the July 20th, 2016 Aviation Week and Space Technology post, "Dearth Of Dedicated Smallsat Launchers Challenges Fledgling Industry," many US small-sat launcher developers are concerned over the well funded competition from abroad.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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