Vector rocket will be second stage of DARPA spaceplane for cheap daily microsatellite launches

DARPA has contracted Vector to help develop a microsatellite launcher. Vector will tweak its first-stage “Vector-R” rocket for use as a second-stage rocket on DARPA’s spaceplane. Second, Vector will develop a smaller “advanced prototype” Vector-R upper stage — this time for NASA.

Success in both efforts should accelerate Vector’s progress toward building “a fully functional two-stage flight test vehicle” for itself, as well as advancing DARPA’s and NASA’s respective objectives.

DARPA’s XS-1 Spaceplane project is a new “drone” spacecraft that will fly to the verge of space under its own power and there launch a smaller onboard rocket to boost satellite payloads the last few miles into actual orbit. That accomplished, XS-1 will land back on Earth like an airplane (or space shuttle), refuel, reload, and be ready to launch a new payload within 24 hours.

In fact, DARPA is targeting turnaround times and consistency of operation that would permit XS-1 to launch “10 times in 10 days.”

The cost of building XS-1 would be spread out among so many deliveries as to dramatically decrease the cost of space launch — perhaps to as little as $5 million for a two-ton cargo.

Three industry teams have been hired to work on prototyping a spaceplane for DARPA: Boeing, working in collaboration with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin; Northrop Grumman, working with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic; and privately held Masten Space Systems, working with also-private XCOR Aerospace.

Experts estimate that by 2020, companies could be launching as many as 500 such “microsatellites” annually. At launch prices ranging from $250,000 per launch (CubeCab) to $1.5 million (Vector) to $10 million (Virgin Galactic), that implies an annual market size of up to $5 billion — a market in which Vector is targeting a 12% share.

The Vector-R launch vehicle is the world’s only launch vehicle dedicated to servicing the micro satellite market by providing a dedicated 50kg launch mass to orbit. The Vector-R is an advanced vehicle made of an all carbon fiber airframe, lightweight pressurized propulsion systems and an agile modern avionics system. Appropriately sized for today’s rapidly growing micro satellite market, the Vector-R launch vehicle will host frequent flights and a range of independence made possible through its unique capacity and mobile launch operations. Vector-R will become fully operational by 2018 and is accepting reservations on its rapidly expanding payload manifest.

Vector Space Systems, a micro satellite space launch company comprised of new-space industry veterans from SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, McDonnell Douglas and Sea Launch, today announced that NASA has selected its Phase II proposal under the 2015 SBIR/STTR program to continue development of an advanced prototype of the upper stage for the Vector-R launch vehicle. The contract, proposed through Vector’s acquired Garvey Spacecraft Corporation subsidiary, complements an earlier SBIR award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that addresses the use of the Vector-R first stage as a second stage for the XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane. In conjunction with the awarded contracts, totaling approximately $2.5M, Vector is investing in related infrastructure and range site preparations to enable high performance flight testing by the fourth quarter of 2017.

Under this NASA Phase II STTR project, the Vector team is finishing the design and will then transition into assembly, integration and checkout of a full-scale prototype of the Vector-R upper stage engine. Vector will then integrate this stage with a prototype first stage engine, gained from a contract with DARPA, to create a fully functional two-stage flight test vehicle. The team members include academic partner University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Alaska Aerospace Corporation (AAC). The AAC hosted precursor ground operation pathfinder tests at its launch facility on Kodiak Island during Phase I that validated the feasibility of this site for the upcoming high performance mission.

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