In the latest twist for space start-ups, a rocket roars off a country road in Georgia
The launch site was the intersection of two deserted roads in a remote, wooded section of southern Georgia. At one point, as technicians tinkered with their rocket, a wild pig sauntered across a nearby field.
The no-frills setup for Thursday’s second test flight of the Vector-R rocket by Tucson-based Vector Space Systems shows how small companies are trying to keep costs low in the highly competitive business of launching small satellites.
Vector and some other companies are trying to avoid potential bottlenecks at traditional and popular launch sites — especially if the predicted boom in small satellites results in more launches. They hope that will enable them to cut down on costs and provide faster service to more customers.
To manage operations at Spaceport Camden — a proposed commercial launch site in Georgia near the Atlantic Ocean — Vector brought its own mobile launch platform and a small, white trailer with a satellite connection that served as its mobile launch station.
“The goal is to launch with minimal infrastructure,” said Jim Cantrell, chief executive of Vector. “If we can come here and do this, that proves we can go anywhere.”
Fellow small-satellite launch firm Virgin Orbit plans to lift small satellites via a rocket that will take off from beneath a modified 747 jetliner, a move that allows the Long Beach company to launch anywhere there’s a runway.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch will take a similar approach by dropping satellite-bearing rockets from the belly of a specially constructed plane with a 385-foot wingspan.
Vector won’t launch from any old concrete slab; Cantrell said the company’s orbital missions must lift off from legally approved and licensed launch sites. But Vector’s mobile operations allow the company to be less choosy.
That means Vector eventually could launch from commercial spaceports that might have just gotten approval but have not had time to install the kind of infrastructure found at larger and established ranges, such as Kennedy Space Center.
Vector also has looked at building its own ranges.
“To keep costs down, we need to have minimum range infrastructure,” Cantrell said.
Vector plans to start sending commercial missions to orbit in 2018 and aims eventually to launch 100 Vector-R rockets a year, he said.
In June, the company announced a $21-million funding round led by venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, bringing Vector’s total funding to $31 million.
The company’s success hinges on the expected growth in the small satellite market — and within that, an even more specialized subset of tiny spacecraft known as microsatellites.
Small satellites typically get to space by hitching a ride with a larger payload on a bigger rocket, such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 or United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V. But hitchhiking has its limits — small-satellite operators often can’t choose the exact launch time or orbit because they’re a secondary consideration.
Vector also is aiming to appeal to these small companies on price. A launch on the 39-foot-tall Vector-R rocket, which will be capable of lifting about 145 pounds to low-Earth orbit, will start at less than $3 million. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which is aimed at a wider launch market, starts at $62 million.
Phil Smith, senior space analyst at consulting firm Bryce Space and Technology, described Vector’s progress as “incremental.”
“The missions will get more and more complex until they actually achieve orbit,” he said.
Vector’s executive team comes from a variety of new commercial space firms and traditional aerospace giants. Cantrell was part of the SpaceX founding team, while other executives worked at Sea Launch, Virgin Galactic and McDonnell Douglas.
On Thursday, Vector had clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration only for a low-altitude flight. The rocket carried a prototype imaging spacecraft for small-satellite imaging firm Astro Digital and a biology experiment for a local Georgia organization.
The Vector-R rocket soared somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 feet, then returned to the ground beneath a parachute and landed in some trees, Cantrell said.
The rocket’s airframe will be replaced, but the company said many of its internal components likely will be reused on a future flight, after an inspection in Tucson.
Vector’s next flight test likely will be in November in Mojave.