All Aboard the Microlauncher!

During our research, it became apparent that the microlauncher industry excites many. This soon-to-become-operational market will open up a new avenue for bringing satellites and other small spacecraft into orbit. This market will be able to widen the launch bottleneck and provide a fast launch service to the thousands of small satellites to be launched within the next decade.

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New Zealand launch manufacturer and service provider Rocket Lab was the first to launch in 2018, initiating a promising year for the small launch and the small satellite markets. Microlaunchers are regarded as more flexible, precise, and cheaper in bringing small satellites to the desired orbit. Until now, many small satellites shared an expensive, often backlogged, piggyback ride on a heavy launcher – not always resulting in the small satellite entering the desired orbit.

As this market opens up, many small launch vehicles are set to become operational between now and the end of the decade. Who are the new organizations entering the small launch market, what do their vehicles offer, and, most importantly, what will they cost? We have made a selection from the many organizations currently working towards a publicly announced deadline.

 

What’s in store for 2018?

Cab 3-A by CubeCab

CubeCab dedicates its Cab 3-A flights to 3U cubesats only and aims to launch satellites daily. The Cab 3-A is being manufactured with 3D printed and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies only, to provide a rapid launch to low Earth orbit (LEO). The Cab 3-A will be launched from an air launch system mounted on the F-104 aircraft, which will take off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In 2017, the company signed a contract with ThumbSat to launch 1,000 satellites. It added another customer to its list in 2018, when CubeSat signed up to launch 300 satellites for the BitcoinLatina Foundation. CubeCab was founded in 2014 and is based in Mountain View, CA, USA. Launch costs are estimated at $250,000.

 

Haas 2CA by ARCA Space Corporation

The Haas 2CA is being developed by the Aeronautics and Cosmonautics Romanian Association (ARCA) Space Corporation, though the association is headquartered in the USA. The vehicle has a distinctive look, nearly resembling a giant razor. Haas 2CA is made out of a number of composite materials, which are also integrated in the launcher’s propulsion system. The vehicle should be capable of delivering 400kg into LEO. The company is currently in testing phase, aiming to launch by the end of year. ARCA has announced that the cost of launch will be around $1million.

 

Kuaizhou 11 by EXPACE / PLA

In January 2018, several Chinese news outlets announced that the Kauizhou 11 solid-fueled vehicle will be launched this year. The rocket is capable of delivering satellites into LEO and Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) and aims to launch four times a week. It’s manufactured by China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) Rocket Technology Company, also known as EXPACE. In December 2017, it was announced that the Kauizhou 11 program had received $182million in investments. It is expected that Kauizhou 11 charges $5,000 per kilogram of payload.

 

LauncherOne by Virgin Orbit

Many of us are familiar with the capabilities of LauncherOne, the rocket that will be launched from underneath the wing of Cosmic Girl, a retired Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 aircraft. Virgin Orbit, a company that spun-off from Virgin Galactic in 2017, is set to test LauncherOne in 2018, followed by commercial operations later in the year. So far, Virgin Orbit has been very successful in securing contracts: it will work with OneWeb Satellites, NASA, SITAEL, Cloud Constellation Corporation, and Planet, among others. VOX Space, a division of Virgin Orbit, will be responsible for launching government and military missions. The company aims to launch 24 missions in 2024. Launch costs are estimated at $12 million.

 

Stratolaunch by Scaled Composites/Dynetics

The design of Stratolaunch left many of us awestruck when it was rolled out of its hanger for the first time in May 2017. The plane, consisting of two fuselages and six engines, is enormous: it has a wingspan of 117 meters. The aircraft is currently testing and aims to have its first operational flight later this year. As with the LauncherOne and CubeCab vehicles, Stratolaunch is an air-launch system, launching a rocket from between its fuselages into orbit. It will be capable of launching 1,350kg in LEO or 975kg in SSO. Stratolaunch works together with Orbital ATK and is set to use Orbital’s Pegasus XL launch vehicle. Launch costs are yet to be announced.

 

Vector-R by Vector

In February 2018, Vector CEO Jim Cantrell announced that the company will launch its first mission this year. Vector is one of the small launch organizations that offers mobile launch capabilities. The Vector-R will be able to launch from Kodiak Island (AK), Vandenberg (CA), or Wallops Island (VA). The 13-meter-tall two-stage vehicle is capable of launching 66kg into LEO and 40kg in SSO. Early customers of the company include Alba Orbital and Open Cosmos. Launch costs for the Vector-R are believed to be around $1.5 million.

 

What else to expect between now and the end of the decade

Several launch service providers expect to become operational at some point in 2019. One of them is Firefly Aerospace, Inc., which aims to launch the Firefly Alpha, a vehicle consisting of carbon-fibre composites and COTS avionics, among other features. The Alpha is currently in its testing phase.

Another vehicle currently under development is the Vector-H (or Heavy) by Vector. This launcher will be the slightly bigger brother of Vector-R, as it is capable of lifting payloads as heavy as 110kg, 44kg more than Vector-R. Vector-H can deliver satellites into circular or elliptical orbits.

Rocket Crafters, Inc (also known as RCI) is working on the Intrepid-1: a hybrid rocket capable of launching into Sun Synchronous and Polar orbits with a maximum payload capability of 376kg. The company chose to develop a hybrid engine rather than a liquid or solid engine to lower costs and ensure user safety. The company received a patent in December 2017 to produce feedstock and 3D print rocket fuel, made from a mix of thermoplastic and high-energy nanoscale aluminum particles. Launch costs are estimated to be at $5.4 million.

Meanwhile, three European organizations are aiming for launch in 2019: Zero 2 Infinity and PLD Space from Spain, as well as the British Horizon Space Technologies. Zero 2 Infinity’s vehicle is rather different looking, compared to the other launchers – a balloon makes its way to the stratosphere to insert satellites into orbit by deploying three stages. Zero 2 Infinity refers to the project as ‘the shortcut to orbit’.

Horizon Space Technologies is developing a more conventional-looking rocket called Black Arrow 2, named after the first-ever British rocket that launched a satellite back in 1971. Horizon aims to start test flights in late 2019.

Next year will potentially also see the launch of PLD Space’s Arion 1 sounding rocket, followed by the Arion 2 in 2021. To date, PLD Space raised more than €9 million to build both launchers. Arion 1 will be capable of launching between 100-200kg to suborbital orbits, while the Arion 2 can launch up to 150kg to LEO.

Meanwhile, Relativity Space, a California-based organization set up by ex-SpaceX employees, aims to disrupt the launch industry further by manufacturing their launch vehicle Terran at a rapid pace by using additive manufacturing extensively. Relativity plans to start commercial flights in 2021, costing around $10 million.

As with many areas in the industry, small launchers have been subject to delays due to continuous testing, lack of funding, or other hiccups on the road. While this has held back the small launcher industry from becoming operational in the past few years, it seems like this year is going to be very promising for anyone requiring small launch services. Looks like that bottleneck will be widened very soon!


Want to hear from small launch organizations like Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Relativity, and Vector? Come and join us on the Launch Systems Day at Space Tech Conference on Tuesday, May 22