[Via Satellite 06-05-2015] Generation Orbit has 11 Letters of Intent (LOI) from prospective customers for its SmallSat air launch system GOLauncher 2. Currently under development, the two-stage rocket system is designed to carry roughly 40 kilograms to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for a price tag of about $2.5 million.
“We have continued to sign potential customers up to GOLauncher 2 flights through letters of intent,” John Olds, CEO of Generation Orbit, told Via Satellite. “We have now 11 letters of intent from 11 different prospective customers for GOLauncher 2. Many of them are domestic U.S. satellite companies, but not all of them. We also have a good mix of international clients who have shown an interest in flying their small payloads with us.”
The GOLauncher 2 uses a Gulfstream business jet to carry the rocket up into the atmosphere, involving a steep flight path angle at the point of release where the rocket does the rest of the work to reach LEO. Olds also noted that all tentative customers are commercial entities.
Generation Orbit is working on a series of vehicles, with GOLauncher 1, the precursor to GOLauncher 2, supported by a U.S. Air Force Phase 1 Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) award. The company is on the verge of starting a new phase of that project, which aims to create an air launched single stage rocket for suborbital microgravity, astrophysics and hypersonic research. The Air Force is interested in using the GOLauncher 1 to conduct hypersonic tests passing Mach 5 or 6 in the atmosphere. Generation Orbit plans to start manufacturing and ground testing its Engineering Development Unit (EDU) for GOLauncher 1 later this year, with the initial work focusing on avionics, controls and the propellant system.
Olds said progress on GOLauncher 1 feeds into GOLauncher 2. The company expects to evolve the avionics and flight control systems from the suborbital variant to the orbital variant, and is in discussions regarding both vehicles with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Olds described the GOLauncher 1 as a risk reduction activity for the GOLauncher 2, which will employ the same single-stage liquid oxygen-kerosene propulsion system the company intends to use for the second stage of GOLauncher 2. Ventions is providing the main propulsion system for GOLauncher 1, and Tyvak is supplying Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) avionics.
Last year Generation Orbit flew its Flight Experiment Test bed (GO FET), passed the Systems Requirements Review (SRR) of GOLauncher 2, and made headway toward another GO FET flight this summer with a paying customer. Though the company has made considerable progress with its launch systems, it does not have a date for GOLauncher 2’s debut launch.
“GOLauncher 1 is currently targeting a first flight in late 2017. There is currently no firm date for the first launch of GOLauncher 2. Our orbital launch services continue to be paced by the availability of private investment dollars,” said Olds.
Generation Orbit is currently in a fundraising mode, and Olds said the company is engaged in active discussions to gain the necessary private capital on which GOLauncher 2 hinges. Focused primarily on CubeSats, the GOLauncher 2 competes with Spaceflight Services Inc. and NanoRacks’ low cost secondary services. Olds expressed confidence that the CubeSat sector, which has reached a fever pitch in recent years, will yield ample demand for launch services.
“CubeSats from the 3U to 6U class are the fastest growing by numbers in the entire satellite industry … we are predicting a launch demand of perhaps 400 or 500 CubeSats a year within the next few years. There is a huge and growing market for CubeSats worldwide. If we can capture a small percentage of that market for fast and dedicated launch — which we believe is a relatively conservative goal — it’s enough to support 20 or 30 launches. At $2.5 million a launch, that’s still enough revenue to support a profitable small business and also return money to investors,” he said.
Part of Generation Orbit’s strategy to keep costs down is pursuing emerging and non-traditional horizontal spaceports instead of traditional launch sites where the company would have to vie for attention against larger vertical rockets. The company has a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Cecil Spaceport in Jacksonville, Fla., and is currently evaluating other options to increase the number of available launch sites.
“We have a strong interest in flying out of one of the new horizontal-launch spaceports emerging in the United Kingdom. There is interest from Puerto Rico and Hawaii too,” said Olds, adding that the company expects to sign at least one more MOU by the end of this year.
“The number of budding spaceport projects around the U.S. and globally will facilitate launch arrangements, but how many and how rapidly these will reach a level capable of supporting regular commercial launches very much remains to be seen,” Carolyn Belle, analyst at NSR, told Via Satellite. “In any case, specificity requirements between the launch vehicle and its launch site are more lenient for air launch sites compared to vertical ground launch sites.”
NSR pegged the fastest growing class of small satellites in terms of launch volume at 3U, with an average mass of around 5-kg. Belle added that growth is expected across the spectrum to 100-kg and beyond, with sizeable LEO constellation plans typically between 125 and 250-kg that could represent a significant launch demand.
Generation Orbit also has plans for a larger vehicle known as GOLauncher 3. Olds said GOLauncher 3 would start in the 100 to 150-kg payload range with a growth option to get larger. He also said this rocket would likely require a larger airplane, and that the company is in discussions with providers who could serve as carriers.
“Our intent in making it larger is to maintain the architecture we have for air-launch with all of the advantages it has, but grow it a little bit larger to get a dollars per kilogram price point down to be competitive with secondary launches. Reusability is an option we are evaluating as well,” he said. “We plan to complete the initial design work on the GOLauncher 3 and roll that configuration out to prospective customers later this year.”
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