More satellites are being launched into orbit almost every day. A variety of companies, startups, and research institutions have reasons for wanting their own orbiting hardware. That means there is plenty of opportunity for companies that can launch satellites cheaply and efficiently.
Firms like SpaceX and Rocket Lab currently lead the way. However, startups with non-traditional means of launching satellites are on the rise.
One of those includes Aevum, an Alabama-based company that has designed a massive drone called the Ravn X. It weighs 55,000 pounds and carries satellites to high altitudes to shorten their journey into low-Earth orbit.
When most people think of a rocket launch, they imagine a massive tower blasting off into the sky with a pillar of flame and smoke behind it. Although that is an effective approach, it certainly isn’t efficient.
Part of the problem involves the tremendous costs associated with things like rocket engines and rocket fuel. After all, it is rocket science.
Aevum’s Ravn X takes a different approach. The massive drone holds a two-stage rocket in its underbelly and deploys it at a high altitude. That means less rocket fuel is needed to reach orbit since the pull of gravity is weaker.
Ravn X is certainly a sight to behold. The craft is the heaviest unmanned aircraft operating today and stands 18 feet tall with a wingspan of 60 feet. Aside from the fact that it is autonomous, it operates very similarly to a normal airplane.
It needs approximately one mile of runway space to take off, meaning it can do so from most airports. That’s a huge benefit and eliminates the need to build and book a rocket launch pad. As a bonus, the Ravn X uses the same fuel as a regular plane, meaning it is much cheaper to operate than a rocket.
Once the drone reaches its target altitude, the rocket it’s holding drops out and ignites its engines about a half-second later. The payload is then carried into orbit within about three hours. Aevum claims that this can shorten satellite launch lead times from years to months.
The startup currently plans to reuse about 70 percent of its rockets but aims to reach the 95 percent mark eventually. As for the Ravn X, it simply returns to the hangar after delivering its cargo.
Humanity has been putting objects into orbit for decades. Using something other than a traditional rocket to do so is fairly uncommon.
Companies like Virgin Orbit and a few others also have plans to launch payloads from an aircraft. However, Aevum believes that its approach is novel.
Indeed, the fact that it uses an autonomous drone is unique. Whether or not it will catch on with mainstream launch clients remains to be seen.
The Ravn X will have a good chance to prove itself in 2021. It is slated to launch an ASLON-45 satellite for the U.S. Space Force. Should the launch go as planned, it would give both Aevum and the Ravn X some much-needed credibility.