A Denver startup company that makes small satellites has signed a $60 million launch agreement with a new rocket company to get six satellite missions to orbit by 2022.
York Space Systems will be the first payload aboard a rocket made by Tucson-based Vector Space Systems, a company founded by veterans of SpaceX and other space businesses and that’s developing small, affordable rockets for the growing market of small satellites.
The launch contract with Vector covers six launches between 2019 and 2022 and can be extended to add 14 more missions, the companies said.
Vector is among a small number of rocket startups catering to makers of satellites that are far smaller than what aerospace companies have traditionally made.
It hasn’t yet launched a mission into orbit.
Vector Space Systems is making rockets to launch satellites that weigh no more than 62 pounds. It’s been testing engines ahead of a orbital test launch from a Kodiak Island, Alaska launch site. It has completed an in-atmosphere test launch.
“Since our launch earlier this year, Vector has made it a priority to engage with partners who share our mission of making space more accessible to a new generation of innovators, and York Space Systems is a shining example of this type of partner,” said Jim Cantrell, CEO and co-founder of Vector Space Systems.
Satellites typically take a few years to build, cost hundreds of millions of dollars and can weigh thousands of pounds.
York Space Systems, formed by Dirk Wallinger last year, is similarly new.
The seven-employee company, currently based in Denver, is establishing a satellite factory near Centennial that’s designed to be capable of turning out small satellite bodies weekly and having the final satellites assembled for customers in about a month, said Dirk Wallinger, CEO of York Space Systems.
Wallinger’s a former engineer who’s worked with OrbitalATK, Lockheed Martin Space Systems and United Technologies who chose to start York in Denver to tap into the wealth of aerospace expertise in the area, he said.
Centennial-based United Launch Alliance, the leading U.S. rocket company, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX both offer “ride-sharing” arrangements to launch smaller satellites into orbit as a secondary mission after launching larger satellites into orbit or cargo missions to the International Space Station.
The traditional satellite launches cost more than $80 million each, at the cheapest, which makes it hard for small companies wanting to get cheaper technology into orbit.
York’s satellite production is a highly-automated process that’s meant to make it quick and affordable to get satellites made. He doesn’t expect the production facility to need more than 14 employees even after satellite production gets going.
The company’s been working closely with Vector to make them easily integrated into the rockets and simple to launch into orbit, he said.
Having a dedicated launch on a smaller rocket from Vector Space Systems gives satellite owners more control over the schedule of their missions, Wallinger said.
“Between our technology and Vector’s, you end up with kind of a turn-key solution” for getting access to space, he said.
York has orders for 38 satellite bodies so far, Wallinger said. Companies working with York are interested in satellites for earth sensing technologies and laser communications links, he said.
The first of its satellites, built in partnership with Colorado Springs-based aerospace company Braxton Technologies for government client, he said. It’s slated to launch as a secondary payload next year.
A lot of the people being drawn to the new satellite and launch companies are have experience working for major aerospace players but want to change how companies can get access to space.
“We’re coming at it with a completely different business model and new a way to execute,” Wallinger said