WASHINGTON — Small satellite manufacturer Apex will launch its first satellite next year as a demonstration of its capabilities as it prepares for large-scale production.
Apex announced April 4 that its first Aries satellite will fly on SpaceX’s Transporter-10 rideshare mission, scheduled for launch no earlier than January 2024. The satellite mission, dubbed “Call to Adventure” by the company, will carry multiple payloads for a set of undisclosed customers.
The mission is principally a technology demonstration for Apex, testing the performance of the 200-kilogram Aries satellite. “We want to be able to test out certain maneuvers and do some higher risk operations once we’re in space,” said Ian Cinnamon, chief executive of the company, in an interview.
The customers, he said, are those interested in buying full spacecraft from Apex and have signed what he called “multimillion-dollar contracts” for the mission. “After our paying customers are done utilizing the spacecraft for their needs, we are able to use the spacecraft as an in-space testbed” and gain flight heritage on key subsystems before going into full-scale production.
Apex announced in October its plans for mass manufacturing of small satellites, raising a $7.5 million seed round. The company added funding after that announcement, Cinnamon said, increasing it to $10 million. The company currently projects producing five Aries spacecraft in 2024, increasing to 20 in 2025 and 100 in 2026.
The company’s goal is to produce a standardized bus that can be built in volume and support different customers without costly customization. “The whole mentality of our company is shifting to this productized approach where we’re not doing custom NRE [non-recurring engineering] for each end customer,” he said. “We’ve designed it such that we don’t have to change anything on the spacecraft if a different customer wants a different configuration package.”
Apex has not disclosed customers for the Aries satellite, but Cinnamon said the company has had talks with both government and commercial customers. Commercial interest, he said, includes using those satellites for imaging and communications as well as applications related to orbital transfer vehicles. Government customers, notably in national security, are interested in satellites that can be built rapidly.
The company has plans for two larger satellites: Nova, weighing 500 kilograms, and Comet, weighing 1,000 kilograms. Half the mass of those spacecraft, as well as the smaller Aries, is devoted to payload and fuel, with the other half the bus itself.
“Almost all of the interest in the market today is for that 200-kilogram vehicle,” he said, with some interest in the larger Nova bus. “The market is just not there right now for the vehicles larger than that, but over time I do believe it’ll start to get a little bit bigger.”
The biggest challenge for Apex’s plans, he said, is industry-wide supply chain problems. “There’s massive supply chain issues, and one of the things that is very important to us is understanding how we mitigate those supply chain issues very early on.”
To address those issues, the company has ordered components not just for the first Aries satellite but the next several it plans to construct. “Our whole mentality is to move faster,” he said. “Even ahead of securing the next several years of customers, we’re already purchasing those components and beginning production.”