When most people think of a rocket launch, they think big. The Space Shuttle, Falcon 9, and Atlas V all stand well over 50 meters tall, and any of those would tower above the Statue of Liberty. They were made to lift heavy things, weighing anywhere from 10 tons to considerably larger, into orbit around Earth. But in recent years there has been a lot of noise in the small rocket industry, promising cheap, expendable boosters capable of carrying a few hundred kilograms into space.
As always in the aerospace industry, some of these efforts were overhyped or had wildly optimistic timelines. For example, the industry suffered a notable failure late last year when Firefly Space Systems declared bankruptcy. However, a number of other companies have made tangible progress this year, making it clear that this generation of small satellite launch vehicles is closing in on its first commercial flights.
On Thursday, Vector Space Systems conducted what it declared to be a "successful" suborbital test of a full-scale prototype of the company's Vector-R launch vehicle. As part of the company's second test flight, the rocket ascended to about two miles above a forest in Georgia, and Vector says its amply funded test program remains on schedule. "We're on the fast-track to get to an orbital capability in 2018 and look forward to continuing momentum and unprecedented growth through the course of this year," said Vector's co-founder Jim Cantrell.
And this past Monday, Virgin Orbit completed modifications on its "Cosmic Girl" aircraft and flew the plane to its facilities at Long Beach Airport in Southern California. Cosmic Girl, a modified 747 aircraft, will serve as a mobile, in-air launch platform for the company's LauncherOne rocket. Virgin has yet to release detailed images of the rocket itself, but the company says it is on target for its first flight in the first half of 2018.
A third company, Rocket Lab, has already flown its small Electron rocket into space. In May the 17-meter Electron rocket didn't quite make it to orbit during its maiden test flight from a New Zealand launch site, but the company says it is progressing toward the second flight of its three-vehicle test program. With additional test flights scheduled this fall, Rocket Lab still intends to begin commercial flights before the end of this year. With the success it has demonstrated so far, Rocket Lab remains the odds-on favorite to win the race to the launch pad for commercial service.
Each of these three companies has raised tens of millions of dollars, or more, in capital.
They all have reported significant manifests of customers waiting to get into space. The allure of smaller rockets is not just lower prices but, once these companies begin flying, fast access to space and delivery into a desired orbit. Right now small satellites must ride as secondary payloads on vehicles such as the Falcon 9, as secondary considerations to the primary satellite.
“Honestly, this is like shooting turkeys in a drum,” Cantrell said of the small-satellite launch market earlier this year. “We see ourselves almost like trauma surgeons coming to the rescue of Earth-bound satellites. There’s just no easy way to space, and we really hope to change that.”
Bobby Braun, NASA's former chief technologist who now is dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, expressed optimism that the small satellite launch companies are finally nearing commercial service.
"Multiple companies have been working for years on a wide range of small-launch options," he told Ars. "The diversity of ideas being pursued bodes well for operation of one or more efficient and effective small launch systems within a few years. This will only add momentum and flexibility to government, commercial and university small spacecraft efforts."
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