Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Rise of Boutique Rocket Firms Inspired By SpaceX

SpaceX has dominated the private space industry since it was founded 12 years ago. The company’s thriftiness, its reusable space launch concept, and Elon Musk’s unabashed hopes to land humans on Mars have all contributed to its swift ascent to the top of the corporate spaceflight ladder.

One of the most interesting byproducts of SpaceX’s success, however, is the wealth of opportunities left in its wake. New spaceflight niches are beginning to be filled by a wave of specialized rocket startups, looking to provide solutions for modest satellite manufacturers with limited launch options.

Firefly Space Systems is of the youngest of these upstart private space companies. Founded in January 2014 by veteran engineer Tom Markusic—who has previously developed spaceflight systems at SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin—Firefly aims to be a kind of boutique rocket company, catering to smaller satellite payloads and missions.

“When Elon Musk started SpaceX, he really paved the way for companies like Firefly to even have a chance at getting started and being successful,” the company’s CFO Michael Blum told me over the phone.

Indeed, in SpaceX’s early days, Musk focused on its small, first-generation satellite rocket Falcon 1. But when the company began to accept the large contracts and payloads it routinely delivers today, it abandoned the Falcon 1 in favor of the beefier, flashier Falcon 9 and its upcoming sibling the Falcon Heavy.

“That really left a void in the small satellite market,” Blum explained. “We’ve talked to a lot of prospective customers who are all having a big issue getting their smaller satellites of a couple hundred kilograms, or maybe up to 1000 kilograms, into low Earth orbit at a reasonable cost.”

The problem has a few different angles to it, but according to Blum, one of the most prominent factors is simple supply. “The best solution available today [for small satellites] is the Russian Dnepr rocket, which are the old SS18s that have been converted,” he said.

“But that’s problematic for a couple of reasons. One: they’re running out of those things. They’re not building any new intercontinental ballistic missiles in Russia, so we think that by about 2018 or so, the Dneprs will have all been exhausted.”

Another major factor is the geopolitical situation. “Our understanding is that the approval for the launches goes all the way to Vladimir Putin’s desk,” said Blum. “What do you think he does when he sees an American customer? Launch approval ends up in a desk drawer. This is really bad for companies that are trying to earn money because satellites typically have revenue streams attached to them. So there’s a void, definitely.”

You might wonder why manufacturers of smaller satellites don’t just piggyback onto larger launches. That is currently the most popular strategy for smaller projects, with rockets like the Falcon 9 bundling in tiny satellites alongside their primary cargo payloads. So, why book a small rocket when you can hitchhike on a big one like everyone else?

“Here’s the problem: often the primary payload is delayed, so the Falcon 9 won’t go when you need it to go,” said Blum. “Or, the requirement of the primary payload may change. It may become heavier or bulkier, and all of a sudden you’re squeezed out of that piggyback position that you thought was yours.”

On top of that, the primary payload “may not go into the right orbit or inclination for your application, so you have to make do with a second best—or even much worse—solution than you were hoping for.”

“That’s what people are doing today,” Blum continued. “They’re doing this on the Antares; they’re doing this on the Falcon; they’re doing this on the Delta and Atlas rocket. But it’s not a good solution. The best solution would be something affordable that can actually really meet your needs and is ready to go when you or the satellite manufacturer or owner is ready to go.”

Along those lines, the company’s 25 engineers have already nailed down the specs for its first vehicle, the Firefly Alpha. The Alpha's first stage engine will generate 400.3 kilonewtons of thrust, while the second stage will generate 44.5 kilonewtons. This makes the Alpha much smaller than conventional private rockets. When compared with the combined thrust of SpaceX's Falcon 9's stages—a dramatic 5,885 kiloNewtons—and you can see why Firefly is angling to launch significantly lighter payloads.

“Our sweet spot is probably going to be up to about 400 kilograms [payload or the Alpha]," said Blum. For reference, the Falcon 9 can deliver 13,150 kilograms to Low Earth orbit. And while Firefly wants its Beta vehicle to carry a metric tonne to LEO, that still makes the payload about 13 times lighter than the Falcon 9.

But lighter payloads aren’t the only thing that Firefly hopes will set it apart from the competition. “There are a couple of elements to that we think are very cool that are going to allow us to mass produce these rockets when we get into operations,” said Blum.

“One element of it is that the second stage rocket engine is actually identical to every one of the individual eight rocket engines on the first stage. So once we spin up our production line, we’re effectively building the same rocket engine over and over again. Reusing the same components will generate a lot of efficiency, and ultimately savings.“

The Firefly family of rockets will also use aerospikes instead of bell nozzles, and the company eventually plans to substitute kerosene for methane gas. “That really hasn’t been done in the world of rockets that lift payloads,” Blum told me.

“There are certainly missiles that run on methane [...] but nobody has put this into a commercial rocket. We think this is going to be a far superior, cheaper, and cleaner fuel to use. This is an important part of our R&D effort to actually get our rocket motors to run on methane and we think that’ll be a big competitive advantage as well. The long term goal is 100% reusability.”

It remains to be seen whether specialized companies like Firefly will be able to successfully cater to smaller niche projects. Blum himself admitted that most spaceflight startups never get off the proverbial launchpad. But the idea of providing a wide variety of satellite manufacturers with genuinely affordable launch options is undeniably enticing, and Firefly is one of the only startups pursuing it as a sole goal. Most other startups focus on space tourism (Armadillo Aerospace or Excalibur Almaz, for example), rather than the delivery of light unmanned payloads to LEO.

“We think that the future is to build smaller and smaller satellites that are cheaper and cheaper,” Blum concluded. “Maybe getting the prices [of launch] down to a couple hundred thousand dollars. Those satellites may very good at only one thing—reading infrared signatures, or taking images, or becoming servers in the sky. But that is the future, we think.”