Vector Space Systems successfully launched a full-scale model of its Vector-R rocket on Wednesday in Mojave, California. The test flight, which remained under 50,000 feet for regulatory purposes, allows the company to remain on track to begin providing launch services for small satellites in 2018, said Jim Cantrell, the company’s chief executive and cofounder.
The Arizona-based rocket company is one of a handful of competitors racing to the launch pad to provide lower-cost access to space for small satellites. These satellites are generally under 500kg in mass and often much smaller (the industry trend is toward smaller, lighter, more capable satellites). The Vector-R rocket will eventually be capable of launching a payload of up to 45kg to an orbit of 800km above the Earth. Other companies trying to reach this market include US-based Virgin Orbit and New Zealand-based Rocket Lab. Neither company has begun commercial launches.
On Wednesday, Vector launched a block zero-version of its R-rocket for the first time, with a single 5,000-lbf engine instead of the three engines that will come on standard versions of the booster. Cantrell told Ars that the goal of Wednesday’s flight was to test the rocket’s avionics and software, as well as monitor the first stage engine in flight. Future prototypes will test thrust, vector control, and other systems needed for orbital launches.
— Jim Cantrell (@jamesncantrell) May 3, 2017
Cantrell said Vector is in the process of closing a second series of financing that will raise an additional $15 to $20 million. Cantrell has begun lining up contracts to build propellant tanks and other hardware needed to begin commercial service in the second quarter of 2018. “We might be off by a few months,” he said, “but I’m pretty confident in those dates.”
The market seems ready for micro-launchers. For now, smaller payloads must typically “share” rides to space on larger rockets, and they cannot count on a launch date. Instead of being treated as excess cargo, Vector intends to offer these small satellites the capability to launch within three months of demand. Vector will launch these small payloads into any desired orbit from Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska or Cape Canaveral in Florida. Launch costs will range from $2 million to $3 million.
Price is less important to many satellite companies than the certainty of a launch date, Cantrell said. Vector already has a manifest of 135 launch vehicles from 2018 into the early 2020s, purchased by more than a dozen customers. Some companies have signed letters of intent, while others have put ink to service agreements.
“Honestly, this is like shooting turkeys in a drum,” Cantrell said of the small-satellite launch market. “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.” Wednesday, the company took a step toward doing just that.
Listing image by Vector Space Systems