Small-satel­lite launch firm goes min­i­mal

Com­pany hopes to keep costs down with no-frills set­ups.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Sa­man­tha Ma­sunaga

The launch site was the in­ter­sec­tion of two de­serted roads in a re­mote, wooded sec­tion of south­ern Ge­or­gia. At one point, as tech­ni­cians tin­kered with their rocket, a wild pig saun­tered across a nearby field.

The no-frills setup for Thurs­day’s sec­ond test flight of the Vec­tor-R rocket by Tuc­son-based Vec­tor Space Sys­tems shows how small com­pa­nies are try­ing to keep costs low in the highly com­pet­i­tive busi­ness of launch­ing small satel­lites.

Vec­tor and other com­pa­nies are try­ing to avoid po­ten­tial bot­tle­necks at tra­di­tional and pop­u­lar launch sites — es­pe­cially if the pre­dicted boom in small satel­lites re­sults in more launches. They hope that will en­able them to cut down on costs and pro­vide faster ser­vice to more cus­tomers.

To man­age op­er­a­tions at Space­port Cam­den — a pro­posed com­mer­cial launch site in Ge­or­gia near the At­lantic Ocean — Vec­tor brought its own mo­bile launch plat­form and a small, white trailer with a satel­lite con­nec­tion that served as its mo­bile launch sta­tion.

“The goal is to launch with min­i­mal in­fra­struc­ture,” said Jim Cantrell, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Vec­tor. “If we can come here and do this, that proves we can go any­where.”

Fel­low small-satel­lite launch firm Vir­gin Or­bit plans to lift such satel­lites via a rocket that will take off from be­neath a mod­i­fied 747 jet­liner, a move that al­lows the Long Beach com­pany to launch any­where there’s a run­way.

Mi­crosoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Stra­to­launch will take a sim­i­lar ap­proach

by drop­ping satel­lite-bear­ing rock­ets from the belly of a spe­cially con­structed plane with a 385-foot wing­span.

Vec­tor won’t launch from any old con­crete slab; Cantrell said the com­pany’s or­bital mis­sions must lift off from legally ap­proved and li­censed launch sites. But Vec­tor’s mo­bile op­er­a­tions al­low the com­pany to be less choosy.

That means Vec­tor even­tu­ally could launch from com­mer­cial space­ports that might have just got­ten ap­proval but have not had time to in­stall the kind of in­fra­struc­ture found at larger and es­tab­lished ranges, such as Kennedy Space Cen­ter.

Vec­tor also has looked at build­ing its own ranges.

“To keep costs down, we need to have min­i­mum range in­fra­struc­ture,” Cantrell said.

Vec­tor plans to start send­ing com­mer­cial mis­sions to or­bit in 2018 and aims even­tu­ally to launch 100 Vec­tor-R rock­ets a year, he said.

In June, the com­pany an­nounced a $21-mil­lion fund­ing round led by ven­ture cap­i­tal firm Se­quoia Cap­i­tal, bring­ing Vec­tor’s to­tal fund­ing to $31 mil­lion.

The com­pany’s suc­cess hinges on the ex­pected growth in the small satel­lite mar­ket — and within that, an even more spe­cial­ized sub­set of tiny space­craft known as mi­crosatel­lites.

Small satel­lites typ­i­cally get to space by hitch­ing a ride with a larger pay­load on a big­ger rocket, such as SpaceX’s Fal­con 9 or United Launch Al­liance’s At­las V. But hitch­hik­ing has its lim­its — small-satel­lite op­er­a­tors of­ten can’t choose the ex­act launch time or or­bit be­cause they’re a sec­ondary con­sid­er­a­tion.

Vec­tor also is aim­ing to ap­peal to th­ese small com­pa­nies on price. A launch on the 39-foot-tall Vec­tor-R rocket, which will be ca­pa­ble of lift­ing about 145 pounds to low-Earth or­bit, will start at less than $3 mil­lion. SpaceX’s Fal­con 9 rocket, aimed at a wider launch mar­ket, starts at $62 mil­lion.

Phil Smith, se­nior space an­a­lyst at con­sult­ing firm Bryce Space and Tech­nol­ogy, de­scribed Vec­tor’s progress as “in­cre­men­tal.”

“The mis­sions will get more and more com­plex un­til they ac­tu­ally achieve or­bit,” he said.

Vec­tor’s ex­ec­u­tive team comes from a va­ri­ety of new com­mer­cial space firms and tra­di­tional aerospace gi­ants. Cantrell was part of the SpaceX found­ing team, and other ex­ec­u­tives worked at Sea Launch, Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic and McDon­nell Dou­glas.

On Thurs­day, Vec­tor had clear­ance from the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion for only a low-al­ti­tude flight. The rocket car­ried a pro­to­type imag­ing space­craft for small-satel­lite imag­ing firm Astro Dig­i­tal and a bi­ol­ogy ex­per­i­ment for a lo­cal Ge­or­gia or­ga­ni­za­tion.

The Vec­tor-R rocket soared 5,000 to 10,000 feet, then re­turned to the ground be­neath a para­chute and landed in trees, Cantrell said.

The rocket’s air­frame will be re­placed, but the com­pany said many of its in­ter­nal com­po­nents prob­a­bly will be reused on a fu­ture flight, af­ter an in­spec­tion in Tuc­son.

Vec­tor’s next flight test prob­a­bly will be in Novem­ber in Mo­jave.

Vec­tor Space Sys­tems

VEC­TOR SPACE SYS­TEMS’ video shows a rocket lift­ing off from Space­port Cam­den, a pro­posed com­mer­cial launch site in Ge­or­gia near the At­lantic Ocean.

Vec­tor Space Sys­tems

TO MAN­AGE op­er­a­tions at Space­port Cam­den, Vec­tor brought its own mo­bile launch plat­form and a small, white trailer with a satel­lite con­nec­tion that served as its mo­bile launch sta­tion.

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