Leo Aerospace is aiming to send microsatellites into orbit on a rocket that’s attached to a huge hot air balloon.

The startup’s vision began as a student project for Purdue University’s Mechanical Engineering program. The research team’s groundbreaking work evolved into an ambitious aerospace company. Its co-founder and CEO, Dane Rudy, explained the goal of their technology during a presentation at TechCrunch Disrupt SF Startup Battlefield earlier this month.

Leo is looking to shake up the heavily backlogged satellite “ridesharing” system with its fully mobile Regulus launch vehicle. With this technology, the company can get individual clients’ microsatellites into space when customers want. They can also send them directly to the desired destination.

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The Regulus launch system basically provides a dedicated microsatellite delivery service.

Improving the Status Quo

CubeSat (aka nanosatellite) technology is rapidly growing, according to a Marketwatch report. Research suggests that the nanosatellite and microsatellite market will hit $6,111.8 million by 2026. Unfortunately, the industry is struggling to keep up with increasing demand.

“These microsatellites can get down to the size of a loaf of bread. And they are revolutionizing how we use space to impact life here on Earth,” Rudy shared in his Disrupt presentation. “In fact, in the next ten years, almost half of all satellites will be microsatellites. They’re tracking global climate change in real-time, enabling the next generation of IoT connectivity, and even providing vital insight in the wake of natural disasters.”

With such an important purpose, getting the satellites into orbit as soon as possible is becoming more critical.

However, the current traditional “ridesharing” launch model is riddled with problems. Chief among them is a significant time gap—like two-and-a-half years—between when a launch is scheduled and when a satellite begins operating.

Furthermore, customers have to choose from a preset launch schedule. The satellites are also dropped off at a place where it might take six months to reach its final destination. Plus, putting dozens of customers’ payloads into a single launch is a complex effort. Ultimately, it can cause satellite limitations and restrictions.

Leo recognizes the problem and aims to provide a solution with Regulus.

“What customers need is the experience of what you and I know as rideshare, where you can call up a ride that takes you where you want to go when you want to get there. No compromise,” Rudy said. “At Leo Aerospace, we are fundamentally committed to providing our microsatellite customers with a dedicated launch service that they’ve been asking for. And this all starts with the vehicle.”

What is Regulus?

The beauty of the Regulus system is that it is a fully mobile, reusable, autonomous launch system. A large balloon inflates, carrying a payload on a small attached rocket. Sensors enable the balloon to ascend to an altitude of 60,000 feet. Once there, the rocket aligns itself, ignites, and blasts into orbit. The satellite stays on a dedicated trajectory until it reaches a single customer’s destination.

One of the balloon’s advantages is that it carries the rocket up to a thinner part of the atmosphere before launching, thus creating less drag. This allows a much smaller rocket to get into orbit much faster.

The U.S. Air Force tested a similar system in the ‘50s. However, those rockets blasted through the balloon and destroyed it. By comparison, Leo’s rocket fires off at a predetermined angle. So, the balloon stays intact. Plus, the autonomous system doesn’t require ground infrastructure to support it.

Furthermore, with Regulus being fully mobile, the system can launch from virtually anywhere, at any time, to meet customer requirements. It can also adapt to weather conditions that might impact a launch at a traditional launching pad, such as at the Space Coast, which recently endured a hurricane.

The aerostat system also cuts down on the massive lag time between launch and orbit in the rideshare model. Hence, satellites become operational much quicker.

“Because we tailor each launch to an individual customer, they can begin operating their satellites immediately. While the rocket is deploying the satellite to orbit, Regulus descends autonomously back down to the ground. Here, another rocket can be loaded up for launch, or it can be all packaged up and shipped home,” Rudy explained.

Right now, Regulus can send “33 gross kilograms, 25 kg of payload, to a 550-kilometer orbit—or about twice that to 300 kilometers.”

Launch Status

Overall, this kind of on-demand launch system could revolutionize access to space for customers in the commercial, defense, and civil sectors.

Leo Aerospace has made some important strides in the complex journey to get its technology to market.

In 2018, the company made history “as the first and only company to receive authorization from the FAA to launch a high-powered rocket from a reusable balloon platform.”

Last December, Leo conducted a series of reduced-scale tests at altitude, in a path toward attaining regulatory approval.

Rudy also advised that the company is under contract with the U.S. Air Force and has identified a backlog of over 100 scientific payloads. The firm is planning to launch some of them in a suborbital launch test in early 2020.

According to TechCrunch, Leo secured $520,000 in funding from TechStars and a grant from the National Science Foundation for those initial tests. Full-scale testing and transitioning to commercial operations will cost a lot more.

Rudy informed the Disrupt Startup Battlefield panel that getting to the first launch of a paying customer’s satellite will cost “in the tens of millions.” With appropriate funding, Leo Aerospace is targeting to perform orbital launches in 2022.

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