Two members of SpaceX's founding team are starting a new rocket venture of their own, called Vector Space Systems, aimed at getting satellites into orbit. But the team's focus is a bit more narrow than that of SpaceX. Rather than launch large space probes deep into orbit around our planet — a feat that SpaceX has mastered — Vector is primarily focused on sending micro-satellites weighing only a few dozen pounds into space.
Today, Vector Space Systems announced that it has received $1 million in angel funding, which will be used to further develop the project's small launch vehicle, aptly named Vector. "We always wanted to build micro-rockets, but Elon [Musk] had other ideas," Jim Cantrell, Vector's CEO and SpaceX's first vice president of business development, told The Verge of the company's origins. "He was interested in building a company with larger rockets for his Martian ecosystem. We were more attracted to the smaller stuff." SpaceX declined to comment on today's Vector announcement.
Getting small satellites into orbit at a faster pace
The main idea of Vector is to help get small satellites into orbit at a faster pace. Over the past decade, researchers have found ways to shrink certain communications and imaging satellites down to just a few hundred pounds; for instance, the company Planet Labs has a constellation of 87 micro-satellites in orbit, taking detailed pictures of Earth, according to the company's CEO. Additionally, small satellites known as CubeSats, which weigh just three pounds per unit, have also helped scientists conduct research or demonstrate spaceflight technologies in orbit.
But getting these micro-satellites into space can be tricky. Right now, these probes are treated like extra cargo on orbital launches; they ride along on large vehicles that are transporting bigger, weightier payloads into space. If extra room is available on these flights, the micro-satellites can ride along and get deposited into orbit along the way. But such orbital launches aren't that frequent: the US conducted just 23 orbital launches in 2014, according to Space News. Launch frequency is definitely increasing, but makers of small satellites often have to wait months or even years before finding the right rocket that will take their cargo into space. "They pay a quarter of a million a ride, but don’t go on their own schedule," said Cantrell.
The Vector P19 test launcher. (Vector Space Systems)
Vector is meant to be the rocket dedicated specifically to the needs of micro-satellites. When complete, the launcher will be able to carry between 40 and 90 pounds of cargo into orbit at a time, according to Cantrell. The company has the ambitious goal of launching 100 of these rockets a year, giving micro-satellite makers plenty of opportunities for getting their hardware into space. As for cost, Cantrell says pricing will range between $2 to $3 million, but will also depend on what customers want from the rocket.
The launcher will be able to carry between 40 and 90 pounds of cargo
"We intend to offer inexpensive pricing for satellites who don’t mind riding along without a clear orbit or schedule but charge more for last minute 'drive up reservations' and different orbits," said Cantrell. "I call this ‘economy,’ ‘business,’ and ‘first class’ service."
So far, Vector Space Systems has tested the engines they hope to use in Vector on a prototype rocket, called the Vector P19. The design for the engines and prototype came from fellow SpaceX founder John Garvey, who had been developing a micro-launcher of his own. Right now, the test vehicles only contain one main engine, whereas the final Vector vehicle will have three, but Cantrell says the prototypes have been flown up to 100,000 feet with very little issue. The company plans to do the first demonstration flight of the full Vector rocket sometime this summer, and the first sub-orbital test flights of the vehicle will occur sometime 2017. Then the first orbital flights will happen in 2018.
The company says it already has two companies interested in purchasing rides on the Vector. When it comes to getting customers, Cantrell says he expects to court very different types of satellite manufacturers than SpaceX, which is focused on a completely different type of market. "They clearly targeted the geo-satellite transport market," said Cantrell. "That’s an area that’s existed for years and it’s continuing to grow. His strategy works perfectly for what he’s doing, and we’re not trying to compete with that. We're going back to our roots and to the lower end of the satellites."