In Orbit and On Budget: Launching Small Payloads Faster and Cheaper

The Affordable Vehicle Avionics payload fits into the avionics bay of UP Aerospace’s SpaceLoft vehicle. It provides the intelligence to command the guidance and control system for the rocket. (Credits: U.S. Army)

SPACEPORT AMERICA, NM (NASA PR) — What does a satellite the size of a shoebox, a human skin tissue sample and a 5G network testing device have in common? They are all examples of payloads NASA and other organizations would like to launch into orbit at low cost—to gather data for scientific research; test new technologies; and transmit and receive data for weather, broadcast, military and emergency communications. But doing so on any sort of accelerated schedule can be a challenge.

“What researchers currently do to get CubeSats and other small payloads into orbit is wait for a larger rocket that they can buy a spot on. And sometimes that wait is many months,” said Mike Briggs, engineer for the Affordable Vehicle Avionics (AVA) project at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. AVA is a low-cost flight computer designed specifically for dedicated small launch vehicles—rockets that would send individual payloads into orbit on short notice and at lower cost than currently available launches.

NASA tested AVA on UP Aerospace’s SpaceLoft rocket for the third time on a flight funded by the company’s NASA Tipping Point award. The technology flew on two previous SpaceLoft flights supported by NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, with the goals of testing the technology in a relevant environment and leveraging the knowledge gained from the flights to aid development.

UP Aerospace’s SpaceLoft rocket. (Credits: NASA)

This third flight, which occurred on Nov. 22, was the first to test the flight computer’s ability to provide the “brains” for UP Aerospace’s own guidance and control system in a fully integrated demonstration that will include firing a second-stage motor. Ultimately, the small company plans to integrate its guidance and control system with technology like AVA on Spyder Orbital—a four-stage solid motor rocket that UP Aerospace is developing specifically for dedicated small payload launches.

“This flight is the culmination of a lot of learning over the first two flights with AVA. Testing the technology on this SpaceLoft flight is also buying down a lot of risk for Spyder,” said Jerry Larson, founder and president of UP Aerospace. The company’s current plan is to begin launching Spyder as early as 2021.

“Our small launch development work with NASA has been ongoing for more than five years now, and the entire relationship has been a win-win,” said Larson. “We help NASA test new technologies on our rockets, and NASA has helped us be able to develop these exciting new capabilities, which means we can eventually make dedicated small payload launches possible without a lot of external funding and investment that would run up the cost.”

Avionics systems in particular are historically very expensive, Larson said. By integrating and testing its propulsion system with low-cost AVA, UP has been able to keep the overall development costs down for the system that will be the central control of its small launcher.

“UP gave us the specifications for their guidance and control, and we adjusted the AVA hardware and software to provide the intelligence that commands it,” explained Briggs. “Ultimately, the avionics cost is an order of magnitude lower than you’ll find in any other small launch vehicle currently available.”

The AVA development team is also working toward documenting specifications in order to eventually allow rocket developers or other avionics companies to license the technology.

“This will give the whole industry the flexibility to pick up this work and take advantage of the learning we’ve gained from each test flight rather than having to build something completely from scratch,” said Briggs. “Some customization will be needed depending on the specific rocket, but in theory the work that we’ve been doing could be applied to any number of small launch vehicles.”

The upcoming launch also includes Flight Opportunities—supported tests for three other technologies, all of which support small launch capabilities. They include an autonomous flight termination system from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a micro-avionics system from Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems and a transmitter prototype from the Federal Aviation Administration. Development teams for each experiment aim to gather data that will help them advance their technologies, working toward eventual inclusion on NASA missions or commercial space vehicles, including dedicated small payload launchers.

Ultimately, those dedicated small launch vehicles could make a big difference in the pace of innovation.

“Currently, the speed of technology development far surpasses the availability of rocket launches to put small experiments into orbit,” said Briggs. “In this kind of dynamic environment, if we can get payloads into orbit faster, we can innovate that much more.”

About Flight Opportunities

The Flight Opportunities program is funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and managed at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the solicitation and evaluation of technologies to be tested and demonstrated on commercial flight vehicles.