Smallsat Launch Providers Eye Reusability, Mass Production to Reduce Costs

 Liquid Oxygen engine main valve test on Test Stand 1. (Credit: Firefly Space Systems)
Liquid Oxygen engine main valve test on Test Stand 1. (Credit: Firefly Space Systems)

Via Satellite has an interesting report on a smallsat launcher panel that took place last Thursday during the Hosted Payload and SmallSat Summit in Washington, D.C.  The panel, which included executives from DARPA, Firefly Space Systems, Spaceflight Industries and Virgin Galactic, featured discussion on the relative merits of reusability vs. mass production of launchers.

“I think everyone can unanimously agree that costs are far too high in launch,” said P.J. King, co-founder of Firefly. “There are many reasons for that, but if you are going to approach the problem of reducing cost, you’ve effectively got two ways to do it: one is to mass produce and lower the unit costs on an expendable vehicle. The other way is to create a reusable vehicle. We have an eye on both.”

…Not all are pursuing reusability — Rocket Lab, for example, posits that expendable launchers are better for the pace of its business — but rapid manufacture is nearly unanimous, with modular systems dominating most approaches.

King said mass production is the easier of the two, and constitutes Firefly’s primary focus for its early rocket development. Founded less than two years ago, the company recently test fired its first stage engine for Firefly Alpha, a dedicated SmallSat launch vehicle designed to deliver 400kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Firefly plans to build as many as 50 Alpha vehicles per year.

“We are going to be doing three to four suborbital launches first — starting in 2017 to assure people — before we kick into orbital flights in the first quarter 2018,” said King.

Richard DalBello, VP of business development and government relations at Virgin Galactic, said the revamped rocket is now much more aligned with the size of the small satellites the company sees in the market, but that the upgrade will require switching from WhiteknightTwo to a larger carrier aircraft.

“We hope to be starting test launches in the latter part of 2017 with commercial operations in 2018. For a lot of the companies we are talking to, that’s a timeframe that works out well; that’s a planning cycle that works. If we can hit those marks, we think that there will be demand in that time period,” he said.

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