Top Commercial Enterprises for Outer Space Launch (Part Three)
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 Part Two, we continued with ExPace Technology Corporation, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Swedish Space Corp., Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit, and World View Enterprises. In this Part Three, we will wrap up with Boeing’s Phantom Express, Firefly Aerospace, Stratolaunch Systems Corporation, Vector Launch Inc., and Zero 2 Infinity.
Boeing’s Phantom Express
Chosen by DARPA for its Experimental Spaceplane Program, the Boeing’s Phantom Express is designed to be a reusable launch vehicle for smallsat payloads. Similar to the Space Shuttle, Phantom Express is a vertical-takeoff horizontal-landing spacecraft. Once in air, it will deploy an expendable upper stage which can launch a 3,000 pound (1,361 kg) payload into LEO. Powered by a single Aerojet Rocketdyne AR-22 engine that uses a mixture of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fuel, Phantom Express is expected to be 100 feet in length, 24 feet in height, and will have a diameter of 13.7 feet and a wing span of 62 feet.
As the finalist for phases two and three of the Experimental Spaceplane Program, the Phantom Express is expected to demonstrate its flight readiness in 2019 by test-firing its engine daily for ten consecutive days. After accomplishing this task, the Phantom Express will then aim to fly ten consecutive daily missions in 2020 that will culminate in delivering a demonstration payload of between 900 pounds to 3,000 pounds to LEO. The ultimate goal of the Phantom Express is to become an effective and fast turn-around reusable vehicle that can launch daily with a cost less than $5 million per flight.
Headquartered in Austin, Texas, Firefly Aerospace is a private enterprise competing in the small to medium launch sector. Firefly has had an eventful beginning with its predecessor, Firefly Space Systems, having had to furlough almost all of its staff after its early investors pulled out due to Brexit. However, like a phoenix rising from its ashes, Firefly was reborn through a critical investment (likely around $75 to $100 million) from Noosphere Ventures. This funding should carry the company through its first two launches. In February of this year, Firefly announced the lease of Space Launch Complex 20 at Cape Canaveral Spaceport for its launch operations and where it will build facilities that can manufacture up to 24 of its Alpha rockets per year. The company also has a west coast facility at Space Launch Complex 2 in Vandenberg Air Force Base to support its launch operations to Polar and Sun Synchronous (SSO) orbits. The company’s initial test flight is expected to occur at the end of 2019.
Firefly has three classes of rockets: Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. Its two-stage Alpha rocket is used for the smallsat market and is expected to cost $15 million per launch. It can deliver a 1 metric ton payload to LEO and 630 kilograms to SSO. The rocket has an overall length of 95 feet (29 meter) with a payload fairing diameter of 6.6 feet (2 meter). The first stage of the Alpha is powered by 4 of its internally-developed Reaver 1 engines which produce a total of 736.1 kilonewtons of thrust. Meanwhile, the second stage is powered by one internally-developed Lightning engine that creates 70.1 kilonewtons of thrust. Alpha is expected to have a launch cadence of twice per month. Based on Alpha’s technology, Firefly Beta rocket is a 2.5 stage platform that can launch a payload of 4,000 kilogram to LEO and 3,000 kilogram to SSO. Beta consists of three Alpha first stages, resulting in 12 Reaver engines producing 2,208 kilonewtons of total thrust. Its second stage uses a Lightning 2 engine that generates 163 kilonewtons of thrust. Beta is slightly longer than Alpha at 101.7 feet (31 meter) with a payload fairing diameter of 9.2 feet (2.8 meter). Finally, Firefly is also looking to develop a reusable launch platform—named Gamma—that is dedicated to the smallsat market which will use horizontal landing.
Stratolaunch Systems Corporation
Founded by the late Paul Allen, Stratolaunch Systems Corporation is headquartered in Seattle, Washington and has a base of operations at the Mojave Air & Space Port. The company’s original goal was to design and build a comprehensive land-to-orbit launch system for a variety of payload sizes. However, this objective has changed in light of Paul Allen’s death in late October 2018; in January 2019, Stratolaunch announced that it will no longer develop its own “family of launch vehicles and rocket engine.” Instead, the company will solely focus on the development of its Stratolaunch airplane, which will serve as a mobile air launch platform for rockets such as the Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL.
With a wingspan of 385 feet (117 meter)—approximately the size of a football field, the Stratolaunch airplane is designed to be the largest plane by such measure in the world. The plane also has a length of 238 feet (73 meter) and a tail height of 50 feet (15 meter). It has an operational range of 1,000 nautical miles (1,852 kilometers) with a total mission time of 10 hours. The plane is powered by 6 Pratt & Whitney PW4056 engines (the same engines used on the Boeing 747) which can haul up to 500,000 pounds (226,796 kilograms) of payload with a maximum takeoff weight of 650 tons (589,670 kilograms). For a nominal mission, the Stratolaunch airplane, over a span of 20 minutes, will climb up to a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet to 35,000 feet. After steadying itself and wrapping up some final preparations, the plane will then drop its rocket attached payload—which will then continue the upward trajectory for orbital insertion.
Vector Launch Inc.
With its headquarters in Tucson, Arizona and research facilities in Huntington Beach, California, Vector Launch Inc. operates in the smallsat launch industry via its family of rockets. While the Vector rockets has yet to perform a full orbital launch, Vector just secured another $70 million in funding late last year from prominent investors including Morgan Stanley Alternative Investment Partners, Sequoia Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Shasta Ventures. Currently, the company is expected to launch its smaller Vector-R rocket into Outer Space at the Pacific Spaceport Complex by April 2019 while developing its larger Vector-H rocket.
The Vector-R (Rapid) rocket is a 2-stage launch vehicle that can carry smallsat payloads of up to 60 kilograms. It stands only 12 meter (39 feet) tall and has a fairing diameter of 0.64 meter (2.1 feet). The rocket’s first stage uses three LP-1 engines that can produce a total of 20,000 pounds of thrust. Once about 100 km above sea level, the first stage’s engines shut down and separates from the second stage. Then the second stage, with its one LP-2 engine generating approximately 1,000 pounds of thrust, would insert the payload into the appropriate orbit. Meanwhile, Vector Launch’s heavy rocket, Vector-H, is expected to deliver up to 290 kilograms to LEO. This two-stage rocket’s first stage is powered by three LP-3 engines that can deliver up to 65,000 pounds of thrust. Like that of Vector-R, the first stage of Vector-H would separate at about 100 km above sea level, and its second stage, with one LP-4 engine generating 3,000 pounds of thrust, would take over for orbital insertion procedures.
In 2016, Vector also established a division with a focus on providing Satellites-as-a-Service for companies and entrepreneurs who “require tailored imagery, onboard analytics, ultra-secure data storage and transfer and high-speed communications” but who do not have the means to launch their own satellites to achieve these capabilities.
Zero 2 Infinity
With a strategy very similar to that of World View Enterprises, Zero 2 Infinity (Z2I) is also focused on balloon and rockoon (rocket and balloon) technologies for near and Outer Space launches. Headquartered in Barcelona, Spain, the company has a mission to “enable people with a project and a passion to place themselves above the Earth.” For near space, it operates two programs via its high altitude balloons: Elevate for scientific payloads and Bloon for manned adventures. Meanwhile for Outer Space launches, Z2I is currently developing its Bloostar technology.
Z2I’s Elevate program uses its STRATOS system architecture to launches balloons with experimental payloads to an altitude of 18 km to 22 km above sea level. The STRATOS configuration consists of (1) a balloon envelope (made up of polyethylene and uses Helium gas) along with a valve mechanism and balloon avionics equipment for altitude controls, (2) a payload system that consists of payload avionics, the payload-carrying Gondola structure, and the actual payload itself and (3) a separation system along with a parachute for the detachment of the payload system. With this architecture, the Elevate program is able to carry three classes of payloads (maxing out at 100 kilograms) for flight durations lasting up to 24 hours.
Meanwhile Z2I’s Bloon program is geared toward near space tourism, enabling passengers to fly up to an altitude of 36 km above sea level. The program uses the same technology as its Elevate program, but uses the Bloon pod, a pressurized capsule, as the payload. With a duration of about 5.5 hours (1.5 hours of ascend, 2 hours of floating time, and 1 hour of descend), the Bloon program can take up to six individuals each trip: 2 pilots and 4 paid passengers.
Finally, its Bloostar launch platform utilizes rockoon technology and is aimed toward Outer Space satellite launches. Z2I’s Bloostar is made of four stages: one initial balloon stage and three subsequent rocket stages. First, a helium balloon would carry the payload up to about 20-25 kilometers above sea level. At this point, the three rocket stages along with the payload are released and the payload’s upward trajectory continues via the rocket engines. The three rocket stages contain a total of 13 LOX/Methane engines, with the first and second stages having six engines each and the third stage with one engine, which can produce a total of 104 kilonewtons of thrust. Bloostar’s payload component has a fairing diameter of 2.02 meter and a height of 1.15 meter and can hold up a 75 kilogram payload to SSO. Each mission starts with a 2-hour ride in the transport ship and 1.5 to 2 hours of ascension in the balloon configuration to 20 km to 25 km above sea level. Bloostar’s first stage rocket propulsion is expected to last for 110 seconds, which brings the platform to 80 kilometer above sea level. A 230 seconds second stage propulsion burn then elevates the payload to an altitude of 440 kilometer. Finally, the third stage insertion burn is expected to last for a little over 340 seconds before the payload is finally released after a bit of coasting.
SpaceFund Reality Rating: https://spacefund.com/launch-database/