Monday, October 03, 2016

Sixteen Organizations Currently Developing Small-Sat Launchers

          By Chuck Black

In a blaze of publicity, both Blue Origin and SpaceX have announced programs to build large rockets capable of competing with the NASA Space Launch System (SLS).

The hot fire test of a small-sat launcher engine in the Nevada desert in August 2014. The engine was a component of the Spaceborne Payloads Assist Rocket Kauai (SPARK) which was, as outlined in the August 18th, 2014 Via Satellite post, "Aerojet Rocketdyne Completes Final Hot-Fire Test for LEONIDAS SmallSat Launcher Engine," undergoing testing at that time. Photo c/o Via Satellite.

What's less well known is that 35+ smaller launchers are currently under development from a multitude of start-ups, legacy space companies and national space agencies. These new launchers, utilizing a variety of cutting edge and/or proven technologies, are targeting the small-sat market, a segment considered at present, to be under served by the existing providers.

Most will end up failing, but some won't. Contenders include:
  • The ARCA Space Corporation Haas 2C Rocket - This US based company (with Romanian origins) makes hover-boards (the ArcaBoard, which makes you, "Feel Like a Superhero!" and the ArcaMini, "inspired by planetary exploration rovers!"), but also advertises the manned, single-stage, liquid fueled suborbital Haas 2B rocket and the two stage. liquid fueled Haas 2C launcher, which is supposedly capable of launching 400kg into low Earth orbit. Doesn't seem to pass the sniff test until you realize that the company has a pedigree which includes drones, stratospheric rocket launches, large scale stratospheric balloons, two governmental contracts with the Romanian government and one contract with the European Space Agency (ESA). As outlined in the September 2nd, 2015 Via Satellite post, "Spaceport America Gains New Customer ARCA Space Corporation," the firm recently relocated to Space Port America in New Mexico. 

  • Argentina's Tronador II Rocket - The latest in a series of Argentinian rockets is a 2 1/2 stage Argentinean small, liquid fueled satellite launcher capable of launching a payload of 200 kg into low earth orbit. According to the Tronador II listing on Gunthers Space Page, the maiden orbital launch is planned for 2019 from the Base Naval Puerto Belgrano.
  • The Bagaveev Corporation's so far unnamed microsat launcher - According to Crunchbase, the Bagaveev Corporation "is a startup backed by Adam Draper's Boost accelerator and advised by Tim Draper (from DFJ Venture)" which is "designing, building and testing 3D printed aerospike rocket engines that will power both lower and upper stages of a 3-ton, 35 foot rocket, designed to deliver 10-12 kg nanosatellites to low Earth and Sun-synchronous orbit." Two rounds of seed funding (one "undisclosed" and one for $120K USD) plus one round of debt financing (for $535K USD) in 2014-15 won't provide enough money to build the rocket, although it will go a long way towards identifying those half dozen "non-trivial" engineering problems likely to bedevil new rocket builders. As outlined in the January 16th, 2016 Business Insider post, "SpaceX success launches space startups to new heights," Bagaveev expects to raise a further $16Mln USD ($21Mln CDN) before launching its first rocket.

  • The Copenhagen Suborbitals Spica Rocket - The company is a non-profit, open project,  amateur based space endeavor, funded entirely by private sponsors and donors attempting to build suborbital space vehicles on a micro size budget, using lightly regulated technology in their projects. The Spica rocket, with its 100 kN liquid bi-propellant engine running on liquid oxygen and ethanol, is a logical follow-on to the earlier, unsuccessful Nexø I rocket and the upcoming Nexø II.
  • The CubeCab Cab-3A Launcher - Another air launch to orbit approach. As outlined in the August 30th, 2016 3D post, "CubeCab Plans to Put Lots of CubeSats into Orbit with a Small 3D Printed Rocket and a Retired Fighter Jet," the company is exploring a partnership with Starfighters Aerospace in Florida to re-purpose the "world’s only flight-ready fleet of F-104 jets," for use as a 60,000 foot high, Mach 2.2 movable platform to launch micro-sats into orbit with its so far not publicly demonstrated, 3D printed Cab-3A launcher.  According to CubeCab, their idea could cut the cost of launching a load of CubeSats to about $250,000, significantly cheaper than other methods of deployment and allow for launch on demand.

  • The Firefly Space Systems Alpha Rocket - A two stage, liquid fueled rocket intended to launch 400 kg to low Earth orbit orbit with a large, capable team, a $5.5Mln USD ($7.2Mln CDN) NASA venture class launch services (VCLS) contract and a just completed $19Mln USD ($25Mln CDN) funding round. However, while the company is perceived to have a high likelihood of actually achieving commercial launches upon the successful conclusion of testing, the program is currently "under legal pressure from Virgin Galactic regarding allegedly stolen intellectual property," over the aero-spike engine Firefly has said it intends to use in the Alpha rocket. As outlined in the September 30th, 2016 Spaceflight Insider post, "Firefly Space Systems Burns Out," Virgin recently moved forward with an intellectual property (IP) legal action against Firefly, which puts Firefly's project plan and funding in jeopardy. As outlined in the September 18th, 2016 post, "Rocket Companies, But Not SpaceX, Are Collecting Rocket Patents," a lot of rocket companies, not just Firefly and Virgin, are currently taking steps to protect their intellectual property.
  • The Interorbital Systems Neptune Series of Launch Vehicles - A strange "beast" of a company with no visible funding, but substantial marketing and numerous online announcements proclaiming its extensive capabilities and ongoing participation (but not always a successful conclusion) in a variety of public competitions. The proposed Nepture series of rockets is designed around liquid and solid fueled, common propulsion modular systems for manned, unmanned, orbital and suborbital uses, which seems to cover most every possible use and seems perhaps, overly ambitious for such a small firm. As outlined in the September 28th, 2016 Space News post, "Launch contract deadline looms for lunar lander teams," Interorbital Systems is currently engaged in building a launch vehicle for the Google Lunar X Prize. The company also competed unsuccessfully for the Ansari X Prize and America's Space Prize.

  • The Lin Industrial Taymyr Microsat Launch Vehicle - Not all start-ups are based in Western countries. As outlined in the September 16th, 2014 SK Skolkovo post, "Lin Industrial: A slingshot into space," the Skolkovo (near Moscow), the Russia based Lin Industrial corporation Aldan rocket (since renamed the Taymyr micro-sat launch vehicle),  is expected to shuttle 10 - 180 kg micro-satellites to low-earth orbit "for a fraction of the current costs," but needed to raise " 500 million rubles" or around $10.5Mln CDN in order to move forward. Over the next two years, the company must have been at least partially successful since, as outlined in the June 17th, 2016 Lin press release, "Flights of the supersonic rocket started," flight testing and development is taking place. 

  • The Orbital ATK Stargazer Aircraft and Pegasus Rocket - This air launch to orbit approach is operational, having launched satellites into orbit 42 times (with 37 successes) between 1994 and 2015, according to the April 19th, 2015 SpaceFlight Now post, "New Orbital ATK paint job for Pegasus carrier jet." It's also expensive, and most of the other companies listed here are focused on lower cost alternatives. A recent proposal to upgrade the Stargazer aircraft (a modified Lockheed L-1011 TriStar aircraft originally built for Air Canada in 1974) under the NASA Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) program, was not funded, but the program has not officially been shelved.
  • The PLD Space European Smallsat Launcher Program (ARION2) - A "a microlauncher designed to offer flights to low-Earth orbit (LEO) for micro-satellites and cube-sats, to cater to the current lack of launch opportunities for small payloads," according to the European Commission ARION2 | European small sat launcher webpage. PLD Aerospace has been developing a family of launchers (including the ARION1 and ARION2) since 2013, using a series of privately funded offering eventually expected to total approximately €25Mln Euros ($37Mln CDN). The ARION2 is advertised on the PLD website as being an "ITAR FREE" three stage, liquid fueled and reusable rocket capable of launching 150 kg into low Earth orbit and 5 kg to the Moon.

US small-sat launch providers are especially concerned over potential new competition from abroad, at least as outlined in the July 20th, 2016 Aviation Week and Space Technology post, "Dearth Of Dedicated Smallsat Launchers Challenges Fledgling Industry."

And they have good reason to feel this way. The sixteen organizations listed above are less than half of the companies uncovered after a cursory search.

For the list of sixteen "other" organizations currently developing small-sat launchers, tune in next week.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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