Vector — a private spaceflight startup based out of Tucson, Arizona — just successfully pulled off another test flight of one of its micro-rockets, launching the 40-foot-tall vehicle this morning from a spaceport in Georgia. It’s the second flight of the vehicle: a full-scale prototype of one of the company’s rockets, the Vector-R. And though the vehicle didn’t reach orbit, it puts Vector one step closer to its goal of rapidly launching tiny satellites to space starting in 2018.
The Vector-R is one of two rockets that the company hopes to start launching on a regular basis in the years ahead. It’s designed to launch very small payloads weighing up to 145 pounds into lower Earth orbit. Vector’s other rocket under development is the Vector-H, a slightly larger vehicle that can carry payloads weighing over 350 pounds into orbit. Once testing is done, Vector hopes to launch these two rockets hundreds of times a year in order to get small probes into space as quickly as possible.
“We’re not going to be the guys developing new rockets,” Jim Cantrell, CEO and co-founder of Vector, tells The Verge. “We hope to get these two vehicles running and milk the hell out of them… We’re going to be building the same thing over and over — like the McDonald’s of rocket business.”
Vector seems to have the credentials and resources to meet its goal. Formed last year, the company boasts an impressive team with extensive spaceflight experience. Cantrell is a member of SpaceX’s original founding team, and he’s working with engineers who come from Boeing, Virgin Galactic, and more. In its latest round, Vector raised $21 million, totaling more than $30 million in overall funding. It’s also racked up numerous customers that include a few major players in the aerospace industry. Today’s launch was fully funded by Vector’s customers and carried test payloads from NASA’s Ames Research Center, the Center for Applied Space Technology, and Astro Digital — a company that specializes in small imaging satellites.
Today’s launch also marks the first rocket flight ever out of Camden Spaceport, located near the coast of Georgia. The site was once used by NASA in the 1960s to do ground-based testing of rocket motors, but since then it hasn’t seen much action. Camden County officials have been vying recently to turn the site into a commercial spaceport, and in May, the Georgia state government passed legislation to help foster the growth of the site. The spaceport is still very new, though, so there isn’t much equipment on the ground to support launches. “Where we’re launching from in Camden, there’s really no infrastructure there whatsoever,” says Cantrell. “We’re proving we can go anywhere really and launch these rockets.” Vector’s first test flight was done in Mojave, California.
Ultimately, Vector hopes to capitalize on what is being hailed as the small satellite revolution. Satellite companies are building and operating space probes that are much smaller than your typical, bus-sized satellite, with some ventures like Planet making imaging satellites that are about the size of a shoebox. Normally, these tiny probes have to ride-share to space, though. They hitch a ride to orbit on the launch of a much larger satellite and are deployed only after that satellite has been released. But Planet, for instance, can fit eight of its satellites on a Vector-R or 20 on a Vector-H — no larger rocket required.
So far, the company says it has seen an enthusiastic response from potential customers about this strategy. “We’re already seeing signs that the existence of rockets like ours would create its own demand,” says Cantrell.
Vector’s prices are minuscule compared to larger rocket launch providers. Typical rocket launches will run tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, but Vector’s rockets will start at around $1.5 million and $3 million per flight. Cantrell is confident the team will be able to make these rockets fast enough to launch between 400 and 500 a year. The key, he says, is that they’re easy to make. “They’re just dead simple. We’re really building the simplest rocket possible and the smallest rocket possible,” says Cantrell. “Technologically it’s like the Model T versus the modern Mercedes. [Other rocket companies are] all using Mercedes-level technology.”
Cantrell says the company is aiming to do up to six test flights before commercial launches begin next year. The next test will tentatively occur in December.