Ursa Major aims to disrupt launcher vertical integration trend

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Colorado startup Ursa Major Technologies is building a line of rocket engines that it hopes smallsat launch companies will choose over building their own engines in-house. 

Ursa Major shipped its first product, a 5,000-pound-force liquid oxygen and kerosene engine called Hadley, to customer Generation Orbit this spring and has begun serial production of the engines while also working on a larger variant. 

Founded in 2015, Ursa Major raised $8 million last fall with participation from the Space Angels Network, a syndicate of early-stage investors who have also backed NanoRacks, Made In Space, Planet and other prominent space startups. The company counts former U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and former Northrop Grumman CEO Ronald Sugar as advisers. 

Ursa Major has taken up the challenge of trying to convince launch startups to outsource their engines rather than follow the models of SpaceX and Blue Origin. 

“The first gut response is ‘our engines are special and we don’t have a company without our engines,’ but if there is a way to increase their margin by flying someone else’s engines, most companies will be interested in coming around,” Ursa Major founder and CEO Joe Laurienti says. 

Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit and Vector Space Systems — three frontrunners fielding dedicated smallsat launchers — are building engines in house. Currently, just two launch startups — Generation Orbit and ABL Space Systems — have gone public with plans to depend on Laurienti’s 26-person team in Berthoud, Colorado, to supply the engines for the satellite launchers they’re developing.

Atlanta-based Generation Orbit test fired its first Ursa Major rocket engine in June at Jacksonville, Florida’s Cecil Spaceport. The integrated ground test showed that the Hadley engine, fed by “flight-like” liquid oxygen and kerosene propellant tanks, should be able to boost Generation Orbit’s air-launched GOLauncher1 single-stage rocket to hypersonic speeds.

ABL Space Systems, an El Segundo, California-based startup led by former SpaceX and Virgin Orbit engineers, is designing its $17 million-a-launch RS1 rocket around a Hadley-powered second stage and a pair of first-stage “Ripley” engines Ursa Major is designing to deliver a combined 70,000 pounds of thrust. ABL is aiming for a 2020 maiden flight.

Laurienti says Ursa Major’s ability to focus solely on engines enables the company to produce better systems than companies that spread their resources thin building the entire rocket. He foresees the launch industry following the same route as aviation, with launch providers making their money through operations, not building hardware. 

“In the aircraft industry, you don’t see Boeing building aircraft engines, and you certainly don’t see United Airlines building engines,” said Laurienti. “Much like United Launch Alliance or SpaceX, United Airlines’ value proposition is to get something from A to B. We want to enable companies to not have to vertically integrate.”

Prior to Ursa Major, Laurienti held positions at SpaceX and Blue Origin, as did more than half of Ursa Major’s employees. In the fall of 2016, Laurienti’s team moved into a 585-square-meter building in Berthoud, Colorado, that once belonged to Ball Aerospace, and hot-fired its first Hadley engine the following spring. 

After 16 months designing and fabricating the first engine, Ursa Major has built eight to date, according to Laurienti. The company anticipates completing the larger 35,000-pound-thrust Ripley engine (also LOX-kerosene) in 2020. Even if only a single-digit number of launch startups succeed, that would constitute a large enough market for Ursa Major, he said.