The past year has seen several developments in space launch technology that are sure to have lasting repercussions for the commercial launch industry, and also the government and private satellite operators that increasingly rely on it. Probably the most significant breakthrough has been successful vertical landing of booster stages by SpaceX – a key step toward reusability and the huge cost savings it can offer. Aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin, meanwhile, has landed and re-launched their New Shepard booster twice over (albeit on suborbital hops rather than boosting actual payloads to orbit). Virgin Galactic’s small-satellite launch offer, LauncherOne, meanwhile, has recently moved into a 150,000 square-foot manufacturing facility and undergone significant changes that will allow it to carry heavier payloads after test flights in 2017, and should ultimately make it a bigger hitter in a fiercely competitive market.
Meanwhile, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency DARPA has pushed ahead with plans for its own XS-1 reusable spaceplane – effectively a fast-turnaround reusable “first stage” capable of delivering satellite payloads via expendable upper stages into low Earth orbit. Uniquely for a US military space project, the initiative is designed to foster an ongoing partnership with the private sector: Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Masten Space Systems have all been awarded further funding to develop their concepts, and each contractor has also partnered with a private commercial space venture – Boeing with Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman with Virgin, and Masten with XCOR Aerospace.
Pushed by competition from SpaceX and the likely imminent arrival of others in the market, the traditional big players at Arianespace and United Launch Alliance (ULA) have both come under pressure to find more economical launch solutions. Airbus Defence and Space will develop a partially reusable first stage called Adeline for the forthcoming Ariane 6, and the French space agency CNES is leading research efforts into liquid oxygen/methane engines that could lower the costs of refurbishing future reusable stages. ULA and Blue Origin have already partnered in a similar research effort for the BE-4 engine, which could power not only Blue Origin’s own forthcoming orbital launch vehicle, but also ULA’s Vulcan, planned successor to the current generation of workhorse Delta and Atlas vehicles.
All in all, it’s both an exciting and a testing time for the commercial launch sector, with government contracts and commercial satellite developers keen to seek out the best value and reliability. This year’s Space Tech Expo therefore offers an ideal opportunity to gather opinions from some key players in the industry, and we were lucky enough to catch up with a couple of the panelists in the lead-up to the event.
Lars Hoffman, Senior Director of Government Sales at SpaceX in Hawthorne, CA, may be celebrating recent successes, but he’s also looking to the future. “SpaceX believes reusability is the key breakthrough necessary to not only increasing access to space, but to making the human race multi-planetary,” he explains. “Reusability has been the goal from day one, and on December 21, 2015, we recovered our first Falcon 9 booster via land landing. We’ve since recovered two boosters via droneship landing. The next step is to prove that we can re-fly a recovered booster, and we expect to do that later this year. We hope these accomplishments will inspire other launch providers to pursue reusability to help lower the cost of launch for everyone.”
Will Pomerantz, Vice President for Special Projects at Virgin Galactic in Glendale, CA, meanwhile, is eager to leverage his company’s unique carrier-aircraft approach to provide a new and flexible launch offer to small-satellite developers. “By virtue of being affordable and quick to develop, small satellites have already had a major impact on the global space industry,” he points out. “But we think this change is only the beginning. With LauncherOne, we at Virgin Galactic are developing a service that matches the competitive advantages of the small satellites themselves. We’re designing a reliable orbital launch service that can be called up quickly, that can fly frequently, and that can be affordable even for small start-ups and new players in the space industry, as well as long-time industry leaders.”
For both companies, the interest in new technologies and approaches goes well beyond the launch vehicles themselves. SpaceX’s use of droneships as recovery platforms enables a safe and fuel-efficient downrange landing that maximizes payload to orbit, but there’s always further to go in the quest for efficiency. As Hoffman explains, “Today, SpaceX is laying the ground work to support launch operations that long term would allow us to take the vehicle from hangar to vertical in as little as an hour, ultimately making launch operations more like that of commercial airlines.”
That kind of flexible approach is built into LauncherOne’s entire philosophy: “At Virgin Galactic, we’re big believers in air-launch as a huge advantage for many types of mission,” enthuses Pomerantz. “We’re using air-launch for both our human spaceflight program and our small-satellite launch service. For the small-satellite industry specifically, in addition to offering a performance boost, air-launch is key to our ability to be as flexible as our customers require. Ultimately, we think our carrier aircraft will serve as a true ‘flying launch site’, allowing us to fly from whatever location our customers want and whatever time they want (at least as permitted by regulation). Ground launches can be delayed by so many factors that are essentially unrelated to the satellite’s mission – whether that be congestion on the range, ‘boats in the box’, weather phenomena, or whatever else. By being able to fly around the weather and avoid the crowded ranges, our carrier aircraft makes LauncherOne a truly responsive system.”
It’s clear, however, that the two companies have somewhat different objectives. For Virgin Galactic, customer focus remains on small, flexible players – successful small-sat companies and even startups. “For our system, what’s really novel is the way we manufacture our vehicle and the way we operate it as a service. We aren’t trying to develop the biggest lift capacity in the industry, so we aren’t optimizing for that problem,” explains Pomerantz. “We’re developing a system that can fly frequently, reliably, affordably and responsively. So for us, the most exciting areas of development are generally in our manufacturing techniques – such as our work in innovative additive and hybrid manufacturing techniques, or our work with LauncherOne’s all-composite structures – and operational elements of the program, like our autonomous flight safety system or our carrier aircraft. The fact that we’re so far along the road of testing and manufacturing all of these elements of the program is what’s most exciting to us about the project.”
SpaceX, by contrast, is already a major launch contractor for the government and private sectors, and in early 2016 won its first launch contract from the US military. For SpaceX, the near future is about more powerful vehicles and ambitious missions that could soon stretch beyond Earth orbit. “We expect to re-fly a recovered booster later this year as well as our Falcon Heavy, a three-booster launch vehicle capable of delivering over 54 metric tonnes to orbit,” outlines Hoffman. “In 2017 we’re looking forward to our first demonstration missions for our crew-carrying Dragon spacecraft, and as early as 2018 we are looking to send our first Dragon spacecraft to Mars.”
Whether you’re testing the margins at a small-sat startup or looking for value launching workhorses to geostationary orbit, it seems clear there will be no shortage of competitors looking for your business in the next few years.
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