WASHINGTON — Could drones hold the answer to putting satellites on orbit faster?
Space logistics company Aevum is betting on it with its new Ravn X drone, which it built in the hopes of launching rockets into orbit every three hours.
“Aevum is completely reimagining access to space,” said Jay Skylus, Aevum’s founder and chief executive, said in a statement unveiling the new launch solution Dec. 3. “U.S. leadership has identified the critical need for extremely fast access to low Earth orbit. We’re faster than anybody.
“Through our autonomous technologies, Aevum will shorten the lead time of launches from years to months, and when our customers demand it, minutes,” he added.
Founded in 2016, the company has been developing its product in stealth mode for years. On Dec. 3, they officially unveiled the new Ravn X autonomous launch solution ― an 80-foot long drone designed to launch small payloads into low Earth orbit.
The company has yet to conduct its first test flight but is working toward airworthiness certification. Leaders hope to launch a payload for the military before the end of 2021.
“We have a small launch vehicle that’s more or less designed from scratch to be reusable and for responsive space access,” Skylus told C4ISRNET in an interview. “We do this by operating this sort of three stage launch vehicle stack. The first stage is an unmanned aircraft that is completely autonomous. The second and third stages are rocket systems.”
Following take off, the drone rises to between 30,000 and 60,000 feet, where the rocket separates and ignites, launching the payload into orbit. Ravn X can take off and land horizontally on any airstrip at least one mile long.
“The entire system is designed for a turnaround time and response time of about 180 minutes,” Skylus explained.
The idea of launching satellites into space from the air isn’t a new concept. For example, Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket ― designed to be launched into orbit from a carrier aircraft ― has been used for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Air Force and NASA missions since the 1990s, with the most recent mission taking place in October 2019. A more recent entrant into the air-launch-to-orbit arena is Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket. The company’s first test flight, which failed to reach orbit, was conducted in May 2020.
Aevum thinks of itself as taking the concept one step further by adding autonomy to the launch process.
“This entire process is more or less fully autonomous, and this allows us to basically reduce the cost of labor that’s required by about 90 percent,” said Skylus.
Aevum’s approach also gets at one of the most frustrating issues with launch: weather.
In 2018, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced the DARPA Launch Challenge, where small launch companies were asked to show that they could put a payload into space within just 30 days. While about 50 companies applied, by 2019 their were only three companies remaining in the competition. By 2020, there was just one: Astra Space. The company came close to achieving its goal, ultimately failing after inclement weather forced them to scrub multiple launch attempts.
Ravn X is largely impervious to those issues.
“Because of the architecture, we’re really not dependent on weather and those types of things. We expect to be available more than 96 percent of the year,” said Skylus.
The company is already drawing attention from the Department of Defense. Ravn X’s first mission will be the ASLON-45 mission for the U.S. Space Force, a $5 million contract. With that mission, the focus is on showing how the company can get a payload into orbit in 24 hours or less, said Skylus. That launch is expected to be complete before the end of 2021.
In addition, the company has received a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research award, a classified contract, and is one of eight company’s to receive a $986 million indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract for Orbital Services Program-4.
“I’m excited to see the bold innovation and responsiveness in development today by our small launch industry partners to support emerging war fighter needs” said Lt. Col. Ryan Rose, Chief of the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Small Launch and Targets Division, in a statement coordinated with Aevum’s announcement. “The U.S. Space Force is proactively partnering with industry to support U.S. space superiority objectives. Having a robust U.S. industry providing responsive launch capability is key to ensuring the U.S. Space Force can respond to future threats.”
The Pentagon has been pushing industry for responsive launch solutions, ensuring that they can place payloads into orbit with little notice. Aevum’s focus on software and automation gives them an edge in meeting those elusive responsive launch requirements, Skylus said.
“The responsive space launch type of problem has been a problem for several decades now, and the government has been seeking a solution to this. While others, our peers, are trying to tackle this from a technology/engineering perspective, Aevum is really tackling the problem from a system level perspective,” said Skylus.
That’s meant taking proven hardware solutions and applying autonomous software solutions to the ground processes and mission assurance elements.
“If you look at our financials and things like that, we really do look more like a software company as opposed to a launch company,” said Skylus. “Which is great, because that means we’re profitable right out of the gate.”
For Aevum, the focus is on being that dependable, responsive launch service, and that may come at a premium for prospective customers, including the Pentagon.
“We’re not looking to be the lowest cost provider. That was never something that we claimed to be,” said Skylus. “Our focus has been: How do we make sure that we can go when our customers need to go?
“Our niche market is going to be composed of customers like the Department of Defense who can’t afford to wait a week to gather intel … Or a customer like a commercial constellation customer who if they’re down for over a week, they’re going to lose more in revenue than they would be willing to pay for a launch,” he continued. “Those are the customers that we’re really targeting.”
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.