Aug 8, 2016 | By Alec

Right now, the aerospace industry is filled with huge rockets that cost a fortune to build and an almost equally large fortune to launch. But as technology shrinking and the aerospace sector is filling with more and more ambitious startups, demand for launches is changing rapidly. Low-cost microsatellites could become key in the aerospace and communications sectors of tomorrow, and launch programs are scrambling to accommodate them. With an eye on those changes, Vector Space Systems has just reached a major milestone by successfully testing their P-20 rocket in the Mojave Desert. Featuring numerous crucial 3D printed components, it can carry loads of up to 50kg into space and could provide inexpensive opportunities in the microsatellite market.

Vector Space Systems itself is a very young micro-satellite launch company that was recently founded by industry veterans from SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, McDonnell Douglas and Sea Launch. Officially announced back in May, this startup is building on more than 10 years of research and more than 30 sub-orbital launches. Their goal? To provide the growing number of space startups with low-cost launch-enabling platforms and vehicles. The company is also very ambitious, with large-scale sub-orbital test flights planned for 2017, with orbital launches following in 2018.

What’s more, they are already perfectly on schedule. A first test took place in Mojave in May, when the company’s second stage high-performance engine for its launch vehicle was successfully tested. Capable of producing 500 pounds of thrust, it is a very fuel efficient setup that can place 50 kg loads into a low-Earth orbit. This newest test (held on July 30) involved a micro satellite's core computing and communications system from Iceye, and showed that the rocket can provide electrical and mechanical resilience in a launch environment as well. The launch can be seen here.

The P-20 rocket also stands in stark contrast to another recently tested machine. Back in June, NASA tested their most powerful rocket to date: 150 feet long and producing 3.6 million pounds of force. While that cost millions and will probably only be launched a handful of times, the P-20 rocket was just 12 feet long and featured a 3D printed engine that will eventually plug into a 42 feet rocket. Most importantly, it could be used hundreds of times – significantly reducing overall costs.

This fits into a trend within the space industry, where less is rapidly becoming more. Technology can be crammed into very small satellites nowadays, and that is translating into a huge cost-saving opportunity as every kilogram will cost thousands to launch. As a result, a handful of startups are already looking to launch small satellites for photography, communications, weather tracking and more. Hundreds of microsatellites could be up and running within just a few years. While currently launched in large batches, small rocket systems could provide a cheaper opportunity.

But it could also cut down on logistical hassle. “We are already seeing traffic jams for a launch at the national ranges,” Virgin Galactic executive Will Pomerantz revealed. “You want to fly on date X, so does NASA, and so does the Air Force; you can imagine where a small entrepreneurial company would fall on the pecking order.”

That is, in short, where Vector Space Systems comes in. “Nobody is paying attention to those guys—they’re still treated like toys, like second-class citizens, they don’t have a reliable way to get to orbit,” co-founder Jim Cantrell says. Together with John Garvey, he saw an opportunity in the sub 100 pound market. While certainly not the only player there, they are ambitious. “I’m going to dominate the small side,” Cantrell added.

In part, 3D printing will play a huge role in downscaling their solution. “The Vector propulsion team has made tremendous progress in a very rapid manner, building and successfully testing an engine using 3D printed components within two months of the company's founding,” Cantrell said. “The rapidity and success of this test sets the standard for the swift development of our launch vehicle and furthers our mission to revolutionize the way commerce accesses and utilizes space.” Their 3D printed single-piece injector runs on a unique propellant, consisting of liquid oxygen and densified propylene.

Right now, the company is the proud owner of the only launch system for the rapidly growing micro satellite market, and can already look forward to a busy schedule once they reach their 2018 orbital launch. Iceye, the Finnish company whose satellite system was used during the second test, is one of the first in line. “Iceye is honored to be a part of this inaugural test launch and to begin our partnership with Vector Space Systems,” said Iceye CEO Rafal Modrzewski. “With our plans to launch up to 30 satellites over the next five years, we expect to work closely with Vector Space Systems as a key partner in launching and refreshing our constellation for years to come.”

But there’s already a threat on the horizon. Incumbent rocket companies are also aware of what’s going on, and especially Space X is building up a reputation for undercutting market competitors, forcing others to completely rethink their market strategy and rocket designs. But it also underlines the fact that there certainly is a growing market for these mini-rockets. “I think there is going to be greater and greater utility in smaller and smaller satellites,” United Launch Alliance’s CEO Tory Bruno said. “[The low-Earth orbit will become] the app store of space, [packed with] all sorts of economic activities, things we haven’t even thought about today.”

But innovations such as 3D printing are pushing down production costs at an unprecedented scale, and could provide small startups with a perfect platform for entering the market. “In many ways, the market for satellites has been so constrained by launch costs for so long, if that diminishes, it’s going to increase our demand,” Virgin Galactic’s Pomerantz said. One thing seems certain: micro-satellites are coming, and 3D printing is going to enable them.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Jack wrote at 8/8/2016 6:22:15 PM:

Great way to launch Ham radio sats which are small.

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