Vector Space Systems, a startup small satellite launch service, is hoping to revolutionize the launch market not just through a dramatic reduction in cost for launch operations for small-sat manufacturers and users, but also through a minimal infrastructure launch architecture that will allow its rockets to launch from any location – potentially freeing the company, if desired, from the four well-established U.S. orbital launch ranges.
Vector Space aims to venture away from standard launch ranges:
While Vector Space is not the only U.S.-based company entering the small-sat launch market (with Rocket Lab set to launch its first small-sat launcher later this month), Vector is unique in that it aims to make use of not only the standard ranges in the United States, but also expand launch capability to any location licensable in the U.S. while also investigating the option of launching their rockets from barges in the middle of the ocean.
For its land-based operations,Vector Space is not looking to completely abandon the standard launch ranges the U.S. offers – at least, not in the near-term.
In fact, the company’s language used on its website makes clear that all of the published data for orbits, payload mass to different orbits, and cost to customer plans are all based on launches from either the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida on the Eastern Range or from the Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska (PSCA) on Kodiak Island, Alaska.
For the CCAFS, Vector has already announced plans to make use of the Space Florida-owned LC-46 for the inaugural launches of its Vector-R rocket beginning in 2018.
Speaking in March, Jim Cantrell, Vector Space CEO and co-founder, stated that “We need precisely what that [pad] has.”
With 105 flights already booked for Vector rocket missions, it’s no surprise that while the company wants to introduce some degree of freedom from the well-established launch ranges – to secure and have greater control over its launch rate and to provide its customers with a wider range of launch options – that it must also rely heavily on those ranges during its formative years.
For the CCAFS launch site, Vector Space – in an exclusive interview with NASASpaceflight.com – stated that NASA’s new small-class launcher facility inside LC-39B’s perimeter was, at one time, considered but ultimately discounted due to uncertainty of how SLS would affect the company’s ability to control its launch rate.
According to John Garvey, Vector Space co-founder and CTO, “We looked at [the small pad at 39B], but I think there are some serious challenges from a programmatic perspective.
“The question we asked was: ‘When they put an SLS vehicle on 39B, and it’s on there for four months, will we still be able to launch during that period,’” questioned Mr. Garvey.
“I can tell you that the program guys are not going to be excited about having someone launch a rocket off in relative proximity to their multi-billion dollar national resource.
“So we had to ask ourselves ‘What’s easier’? Is it easier to try and work around that or go to another pad that’s got a lot more separation and that doesn’t worry the main program?”
Ultimately, Vector Space chose the latter; but that doesn’t mean they are following a standard approach to rocket integration and launch operations even though they’ll use an existing pad at CCAFS for their first salvo of operational launches.
Already, the company has launched a scaled-down version of their Vector-R rocket from the Friends of Amateur Rocketry launch site in the Mojave Desert of California.
In July, the company will follow up with a second scaled-down test flight set to launch from Camden County, Georgia.
As was seen in California earlier this month, the Georgia test flight will show off the company’s unconventional approach to rocket launch infrastructure, with a semi-truck delivering the rocket and Transporter/Erector/Launcher (TEL) to a launch location followed by a fleet of tanker trucks delivering the fuel and oxidizer for the rocket.
This transport and fueling system is exactly what the company will use for their larger, operational rocket fleet.
In this way, Vector Space will veer drastically away from what is standard practice of having a standing launch complex and pad infrastructure system used by larger rockets that lift massive payloads into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Geostationary Orbit (GEO), or to other planets.
This major difference will see Vector Space employ a minimal architecture approach to launch operations, even at LC-46 at the CCAFS.
“With our TEL architecture, we don’t have to invest $10 million in a launch stand and then go from that site and then take another year to build another one,” noted Mr. Garvey.
In this manner, Vector Space’s approach to launch operations is to use a completely mobile system, which will facilitate not only a cost reduction for launch operations but also flexibility in launch locations.
According to Mr. Garvey, “If we had a launch site all picked out and then two weeks before launch something came up or something happened, we could say ‘Okay, we’ll just go to another launch site.’ We would have that capability.
“Ultimately, we’d like to have multiple launch locations available so if one is busy or something happens, we can just shuffle resources and keep moving. We have to. We can’t wait six months if the pad goes down because we’ll lose a manifest of 50 payloads.”
Specifically, this capability to launch from non-standard ranges – which include barge launch operations from the Pacific Ocean – is made possible in large part due to the fact that the Vector-R and Vector-H rockets do not use explosive ordnance.
To this end, the AFTS (Autonomous Flight Termination System) will use thrust termination to end a flight of Vector-R or Vector-H in the event of a launch anomaly.
“Being small, we’re pursuing alternatives and functions that aren’t possible when you have a large rocket where you have to put ordinance on board to take it apart,” noted Mr. Garvey.
“What we proposed to the Air Force was that our vehicle is small enough that [it would be better] to keep it all intact rather than create a big debris cloud which would spread.
“If the range blew us up, they’d have bigger stuff going everywhere versus keeping it contained. And the range said ‘Show us the probability of loss numbers and support your case.’ So we’re doing that right now and doing the analysis with support contracts.”
Moreover, according to Mr. Garvey, no explosive ordnance meant a streamlining of ground safety ops for Vector – a key component in their flexibility to launch from non-standard ranges.
“The other element is that when you put ordinance in [a vehicle], there’s a very real threat on the ground when you have personnel which changes the whole safety operation when people are handling shaped charges.
“So our contention is that it’s a lot more efficient for ground ops [to not have ordnance], and when the ground folks asked us what our ordnance plan was and we told them we didn’t have any ordnance at all, they said ‘Oh, well that’s good, we can just sign off on this then without a lot of analysis.’”
Given the minimal architecture, Mr. Garvey stated that he believes that once fueling of the rockets are completed for launch, they can remain on the pad without the need to top off their propellant for 30-60mins.
If top off is needed, tanker trucks would need to be sent back to the vehicle – which would require depressurization of the rocket’s tanks to ensure that safety is maintained.
In all, while Vector’s approach to minimal launch infrastructure does give them the ability to move their launch site relatively quickly (which could be beneficial in the event of a close to the ground mishap), exactly how this would play out is uncertain.
Moreover, while barge launches off southern California are an option, barge launch ops are hardly new to the launch market and getting the fuel and oxidizer to the barge in sufficient quantities to support multiple launch attempts is still something Mr. Garvey notes the company is still figuring out.
Meanwhile, while Camden County, Georgia, will be used in July for the scaled-down testflight and is also being eyed as the location for Vector Space’s production facility for its rockets, it remains to be seen exactly how many operational launches of Vector-R and Vector-H will actually occur from the Georgia location.
For now, Vector will make use of existing U.S. Ranges while they aim to shake up the small-sat launch market.
Vector-R rockets are scheduled to enter operational service in 2018, with Vector-H entering service in 2019.
(Images: Vector Space, Google Earth, and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)