Terminal Velocity’s Down-to-Earth Cargo Delivery Aspirations


Spotlight | Terminal Velocity Aerospace LLC

In late April or early May, Near Space Corp. plans to use a high-altitude balloon to carry Terminal Velocity Aerospace’s soccer-ball-size re-entry device to 30,000 meters and drop it. This will be an important test of the firm’s new product, RED-4U, an aeroshell designed to protect everything from space-based biological experiments to asteroid samples on journeys through Earth’s atmosphere. RED stands for Reentry Device.

Eventually, the company hopes RED-4U and a suite of similar products will shepherd payloads through other planetary atmospheres as well. “If this company is around in 25 years, it will be shipping things through space similar to how UPS and FedEx ship things on Earth,” said Dominic DePasquale, Terminal Velocity chief executive.

RED-Data2 unit during re-entry
RED-Data2 unit during re-entry. Credit: Terminal Velocity Aerospace

Terminal Velocity was established in 2012 to develop a family of re-entry devices by DePasquale and two colleagues from his alma matter, the Georgia Institute of Technology: former NASA Chief Technologist Robert Braun and John Olds, founder and chief executive of SpaceWorks Enterprises Inc., an Atlanta-based consulting firm that specializes in aerospace engineering concepts and systems engineering. The three men felt the burgeoning commercial space industry, with its emphasis on reducing the cost of missions and increasing their frequency, would create demand for new re-entry devices.

“We felt that there was an opportunity to contribute something meaningful in the field of re-entry that would complement government and commercial activities in space at relatively low cost,” DePasquale said. “We saw a variety of applications that could be accomplished with small re-entry devices, such as collection of data to better understand the physics of re-entry, flight testing of high-temperature materials and on-demand return of small payloads.”

For example, Terminal Velocity executives would like researchers who are developing drugs or advanced materials to use its re-entry devices during testing. To gather data, a researcher might pre-position several experimental samples with re-entry devices on a spacecraft or space station and conduct multiple flights, changing variables for each journey, DePasquale said.

Terminal Velocity staff and Georgia Tech students
Terminal Velocity staff and Georgia Tech students. Credit: Terminal Velocity Aerospace

Terminal Velocity Aerospace at a Glance

Location: Atlanta

Established: 2012

Top Officials: Dominic DePasquale, chief executive; Robert Braun, co-founder and chief technical officer; John Olds, co-founder

Mission: To offer atmospheric re-entry services to enhance safety and promote space utilization.

Terminal Velocity’s RED-4U product is large enough to hold four cubesats or payloads with a mass of 4 to 8 kilograms. The RED-4U capsule relies on a small deorbit stage to target its re-entry and a modified version of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, the transponders airlines are adopting to comply with the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen air traffic control modernization initiative, to report its location.

Although RED-4U is not yet on the market, Terminal Velocity already sells RED-Data2, a data recorder similar to an aircraft’s black box that rides on a host spacecraft and collects information during atmospheric re-entry, such as temperature, pressure and acceleration data. The price of RED-Data2 varies based on customer requirements, but it generally costs “in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars,” DePasquale said. Terminal Velocity plans to transmit information collected by RED-Data2 through the Iridium satellite communications network.

“RED-Data2 can be useful for understanding what happens during re-entry and breakup to improve simulation models and to better design vehicles either to make sure they break up, if they are suppose to do that, or survive, if they are suppose to survive,” DePasquale said. “RED-Data2 can also be used as a flight testbed for new thermal protection materials that might be used on a larger spacecraft or on hypersonic vehicles.”

Terminal Velocity’s RED-Data2 and RED-4U aeroshells take their shape from two small probes NASA launched in the 1999 Deep Space 2 Mars Microprobes mission. The microprobes were designed to crash into Mars’ south polar region and retrieve data on subsurface properties. NASA was unable to retrieve those data, however, because it lost contact with the probes. Braun, a former NASA engineer who worked on the team that designed the Mars Microprobes aeroshells and determined their atmospheric flight characteristics, serves as Terminal Velocity’s chief technical officer.

RED-4U descending after re-entering Earth's atmosphere
RED-4U descending after re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Credit: Terminal Velocity Aerospace

Terminal Velocity plans to cover its aeroshells with a new ablative thermal protection material developed by engineers at the NASA Ames Research Center’s Entry Systems and Technology Division. “The material is very important to us because it’s lightweight, flexible and easy to manufacture, which translates to low cost,” DePasquale said.

Under a Space Act Agreement signed in October 2013, Terminal Velocity gained access to the material in exchange for sharing testing data with NASA. In June, Terminal Velocity plans to begin subjecting the new material to extremely high temperatures in tests conducted in the NASA Ames Arc Jet Complex in Moffett Field, California.

Terminal Velocity plans to conduct its first orbital re-entry test of the new material on a RED-Data2 aeroshell in early 2016. DePasquale declined to name the launch vehicle hired to carry the aeroshell into orbit.

In addition to working with NASA, Terminal Velocity is receiving strong backing from institutions in Georgia, DePasquale said. The Advanced Technology Development Center at Georgia Tech, for example, has helped Terminal Velocity gain access to state-of-the-art facilities and equipment at inexpensive rates, said Steve Justice, director of the Georgia Center of Innovation for Aerospace.

Georgia Tech’s Space Systems Design Laboratory also provides an important talent pool for Terminal Velocity. At any given time, 10 to 12 university students work part-time for Terminal Velocity. Their activities range from designing hardware components to tackling thermal or structural analysis problems, DePasquale said.

Terminal Velocity’s strong ties to Georgia Tech and NASA are likely to serve the firm well, said Stephen Ruffin, a Georgia Tech aerospace engineering professor and director of NASA’s Georgia Space Grant Consortium. “John Olds and Bobby Braun know a lot of the key players at NASA centers and at Georgia Tech, which provides a good pool of talent, interest and research,” he said.