Top Commercial Enterprises for Outer Space Launch (Part Two)
Many have labeled 2019 as the year of commercial space—and with good reason. There are many exciting developments in store this year, especially in the commercial space launch sector. With that in mind, I want to present a high-level overview of the top companies in this space. Using SpaceFund’s Reality Rating, I will provide a brief introduction to each of the top 17 enterprises—those that have achieved a rating of 7, 8, or 9 on the SpaceFund’s February 28, 2019 update—focused on commercial launch operations.
In Part One, we explored Arianespace SA, Blue Origin, LLC, Northrop Grumman Corporation, Rocket Lab USA, SpaceX Corp., and United Launch Alliance. In this Part Two, we will continue with ExPace Technology Corporation, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Swedish Space Corp., Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit, and World View Enterprises. In Part Three, we will wrap up with Boeing’s Phantom Express, Firefly Aerospace, Stratolaunch Systems Corporation, Vector Launch Inc., and Zero 2 Infinity.
ExPace Technology Corporation
A Chinese commercial space company, ExPace Technology Corporation is headquartered in Wuhan, Hubei, China. With imitation being the most sincere form of flattery, ExPace’s name closely resembles that of SpaceX but the company itself currently operates primarily in the smallsat market.
ExPace is known for its Kuaizhou (Chinese for ‘fast vessel’) family of rockets which was first launched on September 25, 2013. The Kuaizhou 1 and 1A consist of three solid-fueled stages designed with a single fixed nozzle and a liquid propellant fourth stage. Once ignited, all three solid-fueled stages will their entire propellant before shutting down. The Kuaizhou 1A is 20 meter tall with a diameter of 1.4 meter and can be used with fairing diameters of 1.2 and 1.4 meters. While mainly used for sending satellites into LEO, the Kuaizhou 1A can also place a 200 kilogram payload into the sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). In 2018, ExPace introduced the Kuaizhou-11 which has a 1,000 kilogram payload capacity to SSO or a capability of 1,500 kilograms to LEO. Due to its cheap launch costs, commercial payloads could hitch a ride onboard the Kuaizhou for only $10,000 per kilogram. Looking to expand its market, ExPace is developing the Kuaizhou 21 (which will have a 20-ton payload capacity to LEO) and the Kuaizhou 31 (which will have a 70-ton payload capacity to LEO).
Sierra Nevada Corporation
Headquartered in Sparks, Nevada, Sierra Nevada Corporation is a privately held company that was founded in 1963 and acquired by its current owners, Eren Ozmen and Fatih Ozmen, in 1994. It has approximately 4,000 employees situated in 33 locations throughout the world. Its expertise in the commercial space sector was established through its 2008 purchase of SpaceDev. Through this acquisition, Sierra Nevada Corporation obtained intellectual property rights to the commercial space utility vehicle, the Dream Chaser, which the company is still developing today.
The Dream Chaser is designed to be a multi-mission platform that can transport crew and cargo to LEO. While the Dream Chaser eventually lost out to Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon in NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program, it was one of the finalists. Sierra Nevada Corporation had protested the final results, but the Government Accountability Office confirmed the results noting that “Boeing’s proposal [was] the strongest of all three . . . [and] SpaceX’s lower price made it a better value [than the Dream Chaser].” However, the Dream Chaser was selected by NASA to ferry experiment supplies to the International Space Station for the agency’s resupply contracts running from 2019 to 2024. Additionally, the United Nations also selected the Dream Chaser for its first-ever space mission: a two-week journey in LEO. Expected to launch in 2021, the mission is open to all member states but priority will be given to those nations that do not have their own capabilities for Outer Space missions.
As for its physical specifications, the Dream Chaser is designed to be the next evolution of the Space Shuttle. With foldable wings, the cargo Dream Chaser can fit within the 5-meter fairing of both the Ariane 5 (Arianespace SA) and Atlas V (United Launch Alliance) launch platforms. It will be able to carry a payload of 5,000 kilograms (pressurized) and 500 kilograms (unpressurized) to LEO while returning to Earth with 1,750 kilograms of cargo. It can also dispose another 3,250 kilograms of trash through its cargo module which will be ejected and incinerated upon reentry.
Swedish Space Corporation
Founded in 1972, the Swedish Space Corporation first incorporated with the name “Rymdbolaget.” In its over 45 years of existence, the company has launched over 633 balloons and 565 rockets, helping to deliver over 118 payloads. Its launch facility, Esrange Space Center, is located in Northern Sweden. Led by the European Space Research Organization (which became the now better-known European Space Agency), construction first began on this space center in 1964 with Swedish Space Corporation taking over the ownership upon the Company’s founding in 1972.
The Swedish Space Corporation is known for its Maser rocket, which was first launched on March 19, 1987. The rocket is primarily used for research in microgravity conditions; with a total payload capacity of 300 kilograms, Maser typically carries 4-5 modules of experiments with each experiment weighing between 45 to 75 kilograms. Unsurprisingly, Maser’s main customer is the European Space Agency.
A subsidiary of the Virgin Group Ltd., Virgin Galactic is known for its space tourism program. Based in Mojave, California, Virgin Galactic finally achieved success late last year with its SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, making its maiden voyage above 80 km (though only some would call it Outer Space). But whichever way you fall on the Karman Line debate, it’s still quite the achievement for this commercial enterprise whose mission is to become the “Spaceline of Earth” (the next iteration of the “airline” industry) and a remarkable bounce back from its tragic and fatal VSS Enterprise crash. Virgin Galactic has a fully-owned subsidiary, the Spaceship Company, that develops and manufactures spacecrafts for both Virgin Galactic (White Knight Two and SpaceshipTwo) and other third-party companies.
The Virgin Galactic flight vehicle is made of two main components: 1) White Knight Two and 2) SpaceShipTwo. White Knight Two is the carrier aircraft for SpaceshipTwo. It has a wing span of 140 feet (approximately that of a Boeing 737) with a length of 78 feet and a tail height of 26 feet. It has a range of 2,600 nautical miles while carrying its SpaceshipTwo payload. Its payload, SpaceShipTwo, has a wing span of 42 feet with a length of 60 feet and a tail height of 15 feet. SpaceShipTwo can carry a crew of two pilots and six passengers. All of the structural components for both the White Knight Two and the SpaceshipTwo are made up of carbon composite. As of end of February 2019, the White Knight Two has conducted 264 flights and the SpaceshipTwo has flown 74 times.
For a normal mission, White Knight Two would take off and release SpaceshipTwo after it reaches a height of 45,000 to 50,000 feet. SpaceshipTwo would then proceed upward on its own with an independent flight time of approximately 30 minutes, allowing its passengers to experience several minutes of zero gravity time. This space tourism experience is expected to cost $250,000 per participant.
Also a part of the Virgin Group Ltd., Virgin Orbit competes in the smallsat commercial launch industry. The company can trace its beginnings to 2017 when the LauncherOne Program was spun off from Virgin Galactic. Headquartered in Long Beach, California, Virgin Orbit has a goal of “to get small satellites to orbit quickly, reliably, and affordably.” Depending on mission profile, the company will launch its rocket from one of three launch sites: Mojave Desert (for high inclination orbits), Florida (for medium inclination orbits), and an island in the Pacific (for equatorial and low inclination orbits).
Virgin Orbit’s smallsat launch technology consists of two parts: 1) Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft, and 2) LauncherOne rocket. The carrier aircraft, Cosmic Girl, is a modified Boeing 747-400. The customization allows the aircraft to carry up to 85,000 pounds. On a standard flight, a crew of two pilots and 2 engineers are onboard. Cosmic Girl will carry LauncherOne, a two-stage expendable launch platform, on its underbelly. LauncherOne is approximately 70 feet in length and has a takeoff weight (with payload) of approximately 57,000 pounds. Its first stage is powered by a NewtonThree engine that can exert 335 kilonewtons of thrust. Meanwhile the second stage has the NewtonFour engine that delivers up to 22 kilonewtons of thrust.
Virgin Orbit’s launch procedures are very similar to that of Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus. For each launch, Cosmic Girl would first take off with LauncherOne and the payload. After reaching an altitude of approximately 35,000 feet, it would release LauncherOne at a 27.5 degree pitch angle. After free-falling for 5 seconds, the first stage of LauncherOne would ignite and continue its trajectory upwards before shutting off its main engine (MECO) approximately 3 minutes after “launch.” After cruising for a while, the second stage of LauncherOne would then ignite (and perform orbital burns as applicable) and carry the payload to its orbital destination. The first test flight is expected to occur later this year.
World View Enterprises Inc.
A private enterprise headquartered in Tucson, Arizona, World View Enterprises, Inc. was founded in 2012. The company differentiates itself from other commercial launch services providers in primarily using and refining balloon technology for its services. In April 2018, World View completed its Series C financing which injected $26.5 million into the company and doubled its valuation to $84 million. Unfazed, this investment had followed on the heels of a December 2017 balloon explosion that injured two employees and was felt at least three miles from the test site.
World View has two primary programs: the unmanned Stratollite flight services and the space tourism-centric voyager flight experience. Using solar powered rechargeable batteries, the Stratollite is a remote-controlled launch platform that is capable of staying in the air for long-duration missions involving payloads such as sensors, telescopes, and communications arrays. The Stratollite can carry payloads of up to 50 kilograms into a maximum altitude of 95,000 feet (~29 km). Through World View’s proprietary technology, the Stratollite is able to sustain itself by using the natural wind currents in the stratosphere; by adjusting its altitude, the launch platform is able to take advantage of various directional and countervailing wind patterns available at each height level. Meanwhile, World View’s Voyager program is tailored toward the space tourism industry. Leveraging helium balloon technology as well, the Voyager is able to carry tourists up to an altitude of 100,000 feet (~30 km) above sea level. While still under development, a flight on the Voyager was estimated to cost each space flight participant $75,000 in 2015.
SpaceFund Reality Rating: https://spacefund.com/launch-database/