Firefly Space Systems is a new space company based north of Austin, Texas. At least 25 companies have announced plans to build rockets to meet the growing demand for small-satellite launches since 2014, but Firefly Space Systems does not plan to blend into that pack. Thomas Markusic, Firefly Space Systems chief executive, said, "Think of this as the Model T of rockets, a simple widely used vehicle for getting from point to point, or in this case getting to space."
“When you are riding as a secondary payload on a large launch vehicle, you sometimes have to wait a couple of years and you are subject to the technical specifications of that launch,” said Amir Blachman, Space Angels Network managing director in Los Angeles. “Whereas if you can pay to get a custom launch for a smaller payload, you can tailor the timing and all the other elements of the mission to your specific needs.”
Markusic, a propulsion engineer who worked at NASA, the U.S. Air Force, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin before founding Firefly, plans to build a family of simple expendable rockets offering dedicated rides for small satellites (under 1000 kilograms) to low earth orbit (LEO). Markusic left his job as Virgin Galactic’s vice president for propulsion in December 2013 to found Firefly because he saw a dearth of launch options for the burgeoning small-satellite market.
Firefly’s initial launch vehicle, Firefly Alpha, is designed to send 400 kilogram payloads into low Earth orbit or 200 kilograms into sun-synchronous orbit. The cost of a full vehicle to LEO is currently set at $8 million, and includes features that typically cost extra, such as the separation system and a full re-ride guarantee. Customers will not have to insure the launch, because if the first fails the second ride is on Firefly. Satellites will still need insurance for their own performance. Other launch options include delivering a 120-kilogram payload to a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit for $4.95 million, and orbiting 3U CubeSats for about $240,000.
In October , NASA announced the award of fixed-price contracts to Firefly, Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic of Long Beach, California, to provide dedicated rides into orbit for the CubeSats NASA transports under its Cubesat Launch Initiative. CubeSats are small cube-shaped satellites typically sized 10 by 10 by 11.35 centimeters and has a mass of no more than 1.33 kilograms. NASA plans to pay Firefly $5.5 million, Virgin Galactic $4.7 million and Rocket Lab $6.95 million for launches scheduled to occur by April 2018.
PJ King, cofounder and COO of Firefly, said the initial target is to field about four vehicles in the first year. If business goes well, King said the number of launches the first year could be up to seven. Assuming continued success, the goal for year two is to produce about 12 vehicles.
Growth of Small Satellite Launchers
[caption id="attachment_163" align="alignleft" width="300"] 3 CubeSats deployed from the ISS in 2013. There is a growing small satellite market. Consider reading Small Satellites: Past., Present, and Future for more information. Photo: NASA[/caption]
Universities, government agencies, and small companies are building more and more small satellites. For years, small satellite companies had no choice but to piggyback on larger payloads as rides to space. These companies have to pay exorbitant fees and often have to wait for years before their satellites or their customers' satellites can be launched. However, as satellites grow ever more sophisticated and as electronic components become ever smaller and cheaper, new companies are forming focused on building a greater quantity of small satellites with rapid turnaround times. The small satellite market is projected to grow from $702.4 million in 2014 to $1887.1 million in 2019, a 21.8% growth rate. Yet, currently, no service exists to exclusively serve these small satellites by launching them at an affordable cost and in a timely fashion.
What is a small satellite? A small satellite is a satellite less than or around 500 kilograms in mass. The small satellite market can be further divided into microsatellites, nanosatellites, and CubeSats. Microsatellites range from 10 to 100 kilograms and often work in a constellation to do the task previously completed by a solitary satellite. Nanosatellites range from 1 to 10 kilograms and can include both single and multiple-unit CubeSats as well as other spacecrafts of any form factor within the weight range. CubeSats are 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm cube satellites with a maximum mass of 1 kg. These have been mostly used for technology demonstration and education such as solar sails, space tethers, and inflatable antennas.
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