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

WASHINGTON — A company led by a number of space industry veterans is the latest to enter the crowded small launch vehicle field, hoping to stand out by focusing on the very small end of the market.

Vector Space Systems announced April 26 that it has raised a seed round of more than $1 million from a group of angel investors. The Tucson, Arizona-based company plans to use the funding to continue development of its Vector small launch vehicle.

Vector is designed to provide dedicated launches of very small spacecraft. The vehicle is capable of placing satellites weighing up to 45 kilograms into a basic low Earth orbit, and 25 kilograms into a standard sun synchronous orbit. Those launches will cost $2–3 million each, with the higher price reserved for “first class” launches reserved as little as three months in advance.

That vehicle is based on technology under development for several years by Garvey Spacecraft Corporation, a small Long Beach, California, company that has built suborbital prototypes of a small launch vehicle. John Garvey, the founder of Garvey Spacecraft Corporation and chief technology officer of Vector Space Systems, contributed intellectual property and assets from that work to accelerate development of this new vehicle.

“This gives us a very rapid running head start on the development of our launch vehicle,” said Jim Cantrell, chief executive of Vector Space Systems, in an interview.

The company has already developed the overall vehicle design, its first- and second-stage engines and other key systems, and plans to use the seed round funding to begin qualification testing of the engines and other risk reduction work. The company’s goal is to enter commercial service with Vector in 2018, but Cantrell did not disclose how much additional funding they will need to complete the vehicle’s development.

Cantrell has worked in the commercial space industry for 30 years, including a role on the team that founded SpaceX and that company’s first vice president of business development. Ken Sunshine, the company’s chief financial officer, previously worked for Orbital Sciences Corporation and Virgin Galactic. Eric Besnard, vice president of engineering for Vector Space Systems, is a professor at California State University Long Beach that has worked on launch vehicle technologies with Garvey.

Vector is targeting companies developing very small satellites that don’t want to rely on secondary payload accommodations, which can be relatively inexpensive but also result in delays. “If businesses are planning to make a profit using the smaller micro satellite capability, they need a launch vehicle that can match their agility and still be ‘right priced’ for the market,” he said. Dedicated launches also give satellite developers more freedom in the design of their spacecraft than if they have to fit into a standardized container or payload adapter when flying as a secondary payload, he added.

While a number of other companies, including Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic, are building their own small launchers, Cantrell argued that his company stands out by focusing on much smaller satellites. “Micro and nanosatellites weighing less than 40 kilograms still fly as secondary rides on those rockets,” he said. “We are offering a dedicated flight for the microsatellite community, which allows them to launch when they want and where they want.”

Cantrell said Vector Space Systems has two letters of intent from potential customers, which he did not name. The company plans to start accepting flight reservations in July.

Some companies and government agencies have attempted to develop vehicles for dedicated launches of very small satellites. Atlanta-based Generation Orbit has been working for several years on a vehicle called GOLauncher, an air-launch system capable of launching up to 40 kilograms for less than $3 million a launch. The company has not disclosed a schedule for that vehicle, however.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had also been pursuing an air-launch system called Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) capable of placing 45 kilograms into orbit for $1 million a launch. However, in late 2015 DARPA decided to terminate plans to do a flight demonstration of the vehicle because of issues with the vehicle’s unique propellant mixture, which exploded in ground tests.

In an April 25 presentation to the National Academies’ Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board here, Pam Melroy, deputy director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said that ALASA’s $1 million cost goal led them to try the experimental, and ultimately unsuitable, propellant. “It really drove us to drive this technology,” she said. “But it’s so energetic you’d never hang this off a manned aircraft.”

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...