Since 2006, Company called UP Aerospace possess small rocket able to lift up to 50 kg of payload to sub-orbital trajectory and altitude of 225 km.
Small rockets are not necessary most recognizable by laics. They are not lifting up space shuttles, military satellites, and parts of space stations. They are not generating spectacular flames and noise which could be heard from many kilometers. But they are part of many science researches and they are helping in gathering data necessary in more spectacular projects. Small rockets were real beginning of modern space exploration – Goddard and von Braun started their fascinating adventure with space from small rockets. For many years, due the technology limitations only large rockets were meeting demands of heavy satellites. But since 1999 and starting developing Cubesat platform everything changed. Satellites do not have to weigh tons to take high resolution pictures – modern imaging satellites weigh around 100 kg. To help in gathering data or perform science experiments in space Cubesat platform is enough; this fact is confirmed every year by dozens of research Cubesat made by universities, companies and societies around the world. Satellite technology became widely available but launch services seems to stay in the sixties. Situation could be compared to using modern smartphone with vintage dot-matrix LCD screen. This can work but it is not adequate; just like present launch technology is still in its general level of development far behind rest of space technology. Huge launch sites, complicated technology of refueling combined with highly toxic propellants, risk of explosion before launching and many others disadvantages are still limiting space exploration to organizations, large companies and government agencies. This contrast between advanced technologies which is really available for everyone with limitations of present launch systems is from few years more visible.
It should not be surprising, that many government agencies in USA are interested in supporting commercial and non-commercial projects for changing present state and making space widely available. Recently two similar projects are developing. One is sponsored by DARPA, research agency under Department of Defense. It is Super Strypi, rail launched rocket designed on University of Hawaii. It has ability to reach 400 km altitude and put into SSO 250 kg of payload. This launch vehicle seems to be perfect for Cubesat satellites and give ability of lifting small satellites at fraction of the costs. Unfortunately during test launch on 3 November 2015 rocket failed shortly after liftoff. Another project is developing under NASA program Flight Opportunities program, which is covering different commercial projects for further development and stimulation. Such project is Spaceloft. It is solid fueled rocket designed by UP Aerospace in 2006 for micro gravitation research. It has capability or reaching 225 km altitude with 50 kg of payload. In previous mission it was reaching usually altitude of around 100 km with record launch in 2014; after starting from Spaceport America in New Mexico, rocket reached 124 km altitude which was record for vehicle launched from Spaceport. Comparing to Super Strypi, altitude of 124 km is not sounding impressive. But look at the picture above to see what does it mean in reality – 124 km is beyond Karman line which is considered as space boarder. Still rocket is designed to reach altitude of 225 km still with 50 kg of payload with launch cost is at $250000 in present configuration. Rocket is launched from mobile rail platform; payload container used in previous missions is reusable and is landing after reentry on parachute. It is called Payload Transportation System (PTS). It consists up to seven special containers in two available sizes – PTS10 is larger (23.5 cm x 24.8) and smaller PTS4 (8.3 cm x 24.8 cm). Every container has provided direct contact with outer space for research purposes. Before launch each container is delivered to customer for installing appropriate instruments. After positive verification of correct installation containers are delivered back to UP Aerospace and installed in rocket. Whole procedure is possible to perform by customer which is another way of cost cutting. Aerospace is planning to use special container, called Spyder, which will allow lifting up to six 1U sized Cubesat satellites (10 X 10 X 10 cm) to LEO with launch cost under $1 million.
4th mission performed for NASA was also 10th mission by UP Aerospace and started at 08:01 MT on 6 November 2015. It was lifting special NASA reentry research capsule and testing new payload adapter designed recently by UP Aerospace. As usual during Spaceloft missions launch was from Spaceport America in New Mexico. After ignition engine was working for twelve seconds reaching thrust at 36.6 kN. After one minute of flight, new Automated Payload Deployment System (APDS) released fairing and capsule was ejected. Rocket reached altitude 120 km, whole mission took 18 minutes. Capsule named Maraia after separation was testing controllability at speed of 3.5 Ma. Reusable part of Spaceloft, payload bay consisting APDS, was recovered from White Sands Missile Range. Projects like Spaceloft are signs of new era of space exploration. Just like Ford T changed way of considering cars – small, available at low cost rockets will bring the benefits of the past, pioneering period in space conquest to everyone at present.