An illustration of Vector Space System's proposed small launch vehicle. Credit: Vector Space Systems

WASHINGTON — A startup developing a small launch vehicle says it’s on schedule for a first launch in 2018 after completing the acquisition of another small launch company.

Vector Space Systems announced July 20 it had completed the acquisition of Garvey Spacecraft Corp., a California company that has been working for more than a decade on small launch vehicle concepts. That company’s founder and chief executive, John Garvey, will join Vector Space Systems as its chief technology officer.

Vector Space Systems had previously announced hiring Garvey, but in a July 20 interview, chief executive Jim Cantrell said this acquisition gives Vector Space Systems access to the intellectual property, assets and contracts of Garvey Spacecraft Corp. “It gives us a more complete acquisition,” he said.

Garvey Spacecraft Corp. has been working for several years on the Nanosat Launch Vehicle, a two-stage vehicle designed to launch payloads weighing a few dozen kilograms into low Earth orbit. That design will serve as the basis for Vector Space System’s Vector 1 vehicle.

“That’s been a huge head start for us,” Cantrell said. Prior to the acquisition, Garvey Spacecraft Corp. had completed the design and initial testing of the engines for the vehicle’s two stages. Those engines are now moving into final development and qualification tests, he said, including a flight test of a second stage engine on a suborbital rocket planned for July 30 from an amateur rocket test site in California’s Mojave Desert.

Another test is planned for September from Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska, a launch site on Kodiak Island, Alaska. That test will also help the company understand how to work with launch ranges to minimize problems Cantrell said often delay launch vehicle development efforts. Ultimately, he said the company plans to launch from Alaska and is in discussions with Space Florida about a launch site at Cape Canaveral.

The company plans to do “large-scale” suborbital test flights of Vector 1 in 2017 in advance of the first orbital launch in 2018. Cantrell said he expects to do three or four orbital launches in 2018, increasing to 12 in 2019. “We’re going to call them test launches,” he said of the planned 2018 launches, “but we have a number of people who want to buy those launches already.”

Cantrell said Vector Space Systems has signed up one customer, and is in negotiations with a second customer, both of whom he declined to name. Both customers, he said, are planning satellite constellations. “Between those two, we will have sold close to 30 launches,” he said, with those launches spread out over several years.

Vector Space Systems, which has about 20 employees currently at offices in Tucson, Arizona, and Huntington Beach, California, raised a $1 million seed round in April. Cantrell said the company is currently working on a Series A round of about $10 million this year, to be followed in 2017 by a Series B round of approximately $25 million. That funding, he said, will be sufficient to get the company through the start of commercial launch operations.

The company is one of several developing small launch vehicles to serve the growing small satellite market. Cantrell said Vector Space Systems stands out because it is focused on the very small end of the market: the Vector 1 can place 45 kilograms into a low-inclination orbit and 25 kilograms into a polar orbit. Most other vehicles under development have higher payload capacities.

Cantrell argued this allows his company to offer dedicated launches for microsatellites. Those satellites would likely have to fly as secondary payloads even on those other small launch vehicles, like Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, which can place 150 kilograms into low Earth orbit. “We don’t really see us competing with Rocket Lab even though our markets do cross,” he said.

He added that while the company’s rocket is called the Vector 1, there are no plans for other vehicles with a larger payload capacity. “We’re going to make money differently from most folks,” he said, focusing on increasing launch rates rather than the size of the vehicle. “Our plan is to stick with the Vector 1 and continue to make and fly more of those.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...