Latest News

Generation Orbit Talks Plans for Weekly Launches, Hypersonic Travel

By | December 2, 2016
      Illustration of the Generation Orbit nanosatellite air launcher flight path. Photo: Generation Orbit

      Illustration of the Generation Orbit nanosatellite air launcher flight path. Photo: Generation Orbit

      [Via Satellite 11-30-2016] Generation Orbit Launch Services is making progress with its air launch system that aims to enable nanosatellite launches nearly as often as an aircraft flies. Generation Orbit is preparing for wind-tunnel and hot-fire testing of its GOLauncher 1 (GO1), the first test vehicle in its development of a series of air-launched rocket vehicles based on business jets for the satellite launch market.

      The Atlanta-based company got its start as a branch of space engineering company SpaceWorks Enterprises and set out to introduce lower launch costs and increased mission flexibility to the smallsat market, in part through the development of hypersonic speeds and sub-orbital spaceflight.

      The vehicle is designed to launch from the ground much like an airplane, pass through the atmosphere and launch small satellites into orbit before returning to earth. With this method, Generation Orbit promises a launch rate faster than is available through traditional large launch companies, at a rate of about once a week, which they believe will enable a more agile launch market.

      “[The intention in developing this type of launcher] was more to enable a commercial business case. If you’re a satellite operator launching a small satellite you’re not making revenue when you’re on the ground, so if launch lead-time is two years it doesn’t give you the ability to rapidly capitalize on what you’re doing. It also doesn’t allow you to iterate as quickly on the technology,” A.J. Piplica, chief operating officer at Generation Orbit Launch Services, told Via Satellite. “We will see the kind of agile way that aircraft function becomes more prevalent on the satellite side. It’s a little more difficult on the launch vehicle side. When you click ‘compile’ on a rocket and it doesn’t operate properly, it blows up, so you can’t iterate as quickly because you end up doing a lot more due diligence up front.”

      Their current prototype is built from a Gulfstream business jet and aims to launch nearly as often as a business jet flies.

      “The system operates with aircraft-like operations, so the limitations are within that realm. Aircraft take off and launch thousands of times every day, so that type of operational cadence is something we would like to get to in the future. There are of course additional complications when you’re launching a rocket, but I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t launch daily,” Piplica said.

      As an arm of SpaceWorks, which researches and distributes a yearly smallsat report, Piplica says Generation Orbit has determined that the market for orbital systems when the services are launched would likely support a minimum of monthly launches and as high as 200 flights a year. Most likely, “Not quite daily but somewhere between weekly and daily,” Piplica said.

      After completing its preliminary design review in March 2016, the company is currently working on two prototypes aimed at developing the two arms of the launch vehicle: hypersonic flight and a suborbital air launcher. Generation Orbit is developing the first, GO1, which is aimed at evaluating hypersonic flight, alongside the Air Force Research Laboratory to enable wind tunnel and integrated hot fire testing on its Gulfstream business jet-based prototype, GO1. This prototype will serve as a high-speed flight testbed for research and development of hypersonic systems, which the company believes will enable the next frontier of atmospheric flight. Capable of reaching speeds up to Mach 7 with a test payload attached, the company’s GO1 development of hypersonic systems is supported by collaborations at NASA and the U.S. Air Force. When up and running, the launch vehicle will also be used to fly high-altitude suborbital research missions.

      “[This first prototype] is the engineering development unit, a full-scale, functional prototype of the rocket vehicle. That includes the propellant tanks, pressurization system, propellant feed system, engine, avionics, software, etc. We’re taking that through a fully integrated hot-fire test campaign in quarter three of next year, around August or September of 2017,” Piplica explained.

      Progress with GOLauncher 1 will feed into GO’s orbital air-launch system GOLauncher 2, a two-stage rocket system designed to carry roughly 40 kilograms to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for a around $2.5 million. In 2015, the company reported to Via Satellite that it had 11 Letters of Intent (LOI) from prospective customers for the smallsat launch services.

      The second prototype, the GO1 Inert Test Article (ITA) is being developed in collaboration with NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC), which aims to pursue flight test and envelope clearance for the GOLauncher 1 air launched rocket vehicle.

      “It’s a full-scale mock-up of the GO1, which includes mass properties and outer mode line simulator. It’s the same shape, weight and center of gravity, which we will fly with NASA on one of their Gulfstream IIIs. They have two that are modified with the same centerline hard point and the same interface that we have designed for the vehicle. We will do aircraft integration, captive carry and release flight testing of that test article around late next summer,” Piplica said.

      With those two efforts together, Piplica believes Generation Orbit has gotten “pretty far down on hardware” on the aircraft side as well as demonstrated that the vehicle is able to safely release the rocket from a business jet.

      Next year, the company will focus on hardware prototypes and nailing down the detailed design elements of the system with the aim of passing a critical design review in the second half of 2017. After that, “2018 will be building hardware, doing a lot of component-level testing and integration and working ourselves up to a live-fire flight test toward the end of 2018,” said Piplica.

      But Generation Orbit is well aware of the competition quickly emerging in the smallsat launch market as companies such as Vector Space Systems, Rocket Labs, Virgin Galactic and FireFly begin to make their names, snagging contracts while their products are still in development. While Piplica believes that there is room for several smallsat-dedicated launch companies, “perhaps two or three,” he believes the Generation Orbit’s “space plane” will leave them as one of the contenders.

      And if the space proves not to be a profitable pursuit as the technology develops, he also has a back up plan: hypersonic flight.

      “We have taken a bit of a different trajectory. The first product that we put out is not going to be a smallsat launch product, it is going to be a flight test product that is focused on hypersonic flight testing,” said Piplica. “As we move on in developing the technology we will hit a fork in the road in which we will have to examine if we’d like to continue with either hypersonics or smallsat launch.”

      The company plans to make hypersonic travel, several orders of magnitude faster than supersonic flight, commercially available in 2019 and in the meantime will be testing technologies on its GO1 aircraft that look to make hypersonic travel possible. For now, Generation Orbit it is focusing on growing and developing the technology in partnership with government organizations, such as NASA, the Air Force, DARPA and others that can benefit from it.

      “We have gone after contracts for [Small Business Innovation Research] SBIR-type funding as well as contracts from government organizations that are well-incentivized to develop hypersonic technologies,” said Piplica. “We’re not just trying to strike contracts for the sake of keeping the business running, we’re trying to develop a product that we are bringing to market, so we have strategically gone after opportunities that allow us to strategically cross-off certain things on our development roadmap. We have been fairly successful in doing that thus far.”