A couple of months ago, I came to a realization that many of the “gaps” impeding space commercialization could be profitably targeted right now, instead of having to develop everything in series, boostrapping up from suborbital RLVs. While the evolutionary approach is still a valid one, several of the key missing puzzle pieces, such as low-maintenance reusable TPS can be commercialized in the near-term, without having to build a full orbital RLV, and without having to leverage revenue streams from suborbital operations. I’m not sure I realized it at the time, but this concept is a big part of what we are trying to do with Altius Space Machines.
The best way to describe things in one sentence is that Altius Space Machines is a rapid prototyping company developing and commercializing technologies needed for reusable orbital launch vehicles, and enabling markets for such vehicles.
Altius will be focused on building and demonstrating prototype flight hardware both for our own internal projects, and for external clients. In the process of developing our own product lines, Altius will be building up a team with significant expertise in rapid prototyping, and flight vehicle testing which will be able to serve the needs of other customers. The fact that Altius is not trying to be an operations company also makes it a bit easier for it to work with many players in the suborbital and orbital launch world.
This model is similar to what Scaled and Aurora Flight Sciences have done in the UAV world.
Enabling Technology Product Lines
In addition to contract prototype work for commercial and government clients, we have identified several areas where Altius can develop stand-alone products that mature technologies required for enabling reusable orbital transportation. We have looked at a wide range of potential product lines, including launcher-related products like nanosat launchers with reusable first stages and reusable upper stages for suborbital RLVs, as well as non-launcher ideas like reusable micro reentry vehicles and a variant on the boom rendezvous and docking concept. We also have several other ideas we’re looking at, including more subsystem-type technologies such as an extremely lightweight aluminum combustion chamber fabrication concept, an advanced pump-feed concept we’re investigating with Retro Aerospace (blog post on that one soon), and a few others.
Here’s some more details on a few of those product lines:
Reusable First-Stage NanoSat Launcher
This is a topic area I’ve been working on for quite some time now, but particularly over the past year or so. There are many competitors in this market area, especially with the announcement of the NanoSat Launcher Centennial Challenge, but most of them are looking at expendable systems based on solids or other components. While it is true that doing so reduces risk in the eyes of investors, it ties in a higher operations cost, typically makes the vehicles more complicated (three or more stages), and lowers the potential for high-tempo operations like some customers (such as the Army Nanosat program) want. I don’t think the reusable element in such a system has to cost much more to develop than a comparable suborbital RLV like Masten’s Xogdor or Armadillo’s SuperMod.
I won’t go into all the details here, but the concept we’ve been looking at is based on the air-launch glideforward concept I discussed on this blog several years ago (using John Hare’s realization that you don’t necessarily have to have a winged first stage with such a system), but with an expendable upper stage.
There seems to be a decent amount of demand for a system like this, it paves the way for future fully-reusable vehicles, and is a small-enough project to be completable within a 4-5 year time-frame with adequate funding.
Reusable Micro Reentry Vehicles
One of the prime examples of technologies that can be developed independently, but which is critical for orbital RLVs is reusable, low-maintenance Thermal Protection Systems. There are a ton of ideas out there for how to solve this problem, ranging from stronger ceramic tiles, to transpiration cooling, to metallic heat shields. A good deal of ground work has been done on these ideas, but very few of them have been flight tested, and none of them have really gone into an operational product. By focusing on a micro-scale reentry vehicle (imagine something big enough to bring something like a NanoRacks CubeLab back from LEO), a lot of experience from the nanosat and suborbital communities can be brought to bear on the problem, and the scale is small enough that rideshare opportunities are available to keep the flight demonstration costs reasonably low. Such a system could target markets including rapid sample return from ISS researchers as well as providing a free-flyer platform similar to DragonLab, but without having to aggregate your payload with dozens of other systems. But at the same time it would be demonstrating a key subsystem technology needed for orbital RLVs.
Once you’ve developed the ability to reusably return a vehicle from LEO, most of the other pieces for a small RLV are ones that have already been demonstrated in the suborbital world, and from doing a semi-reusable nanosat launcher.
Advanced Boom Rendezvous
Current rendezvous and docking systems are not a good match for high flight-rate RLVs. The complicated hardware necessary for such prox-ops ties up too much of the capacity of a small RLV, and they are not really suited for high-tempo operations. The limitations of current prox-ops solutions are also part of why groups like ESAS and HEFT were able to so readily dismiss propellant-depots for exploration missions. If there were a solution that required minimal hardware on the delivery vehicle side, minimize risks of failed docking or accidental collisions, and generally made rendezvous and docking an almost non-event, it would go a long way towards making propellant depots and orbital RLVs a reality.
Kirk Sorensen, one of my cobloggers here on Selenian Boondocks, invented the Boom Rendezvous concept, which I see as an important part of the solution to this problem. Boom rendezvous, by moving the initial contact away from either vehicle greatly reduces the odds of accidental collisions, simplifies and speeds up the rendezvous process, and greatly reduces the mass penalties for rendezvous and docking systems on the delivery vehicle. And we figured out a way to take that great idea and make it even better, making it so the boom system can readily (and non-destructively) grip target surfaces that aren’t designed for mechanical capture…but how we intend to do that is a blog post for another day. Suffice it to say, if we can make this technology work, it would enable easy capturing of space debris, nanosat-scale space tugs, simpler rendezvous and docking for personnel, cargo, and propellant deliveries, much easier orbital servicing missions, etc.
Anyhow, there are a lot of other details about Altius Space Machines, more details on what we want to do, why we’re interested in Colorado, and how we intend to run our business, but I think this is enough to help people understand what it is we are trying to do with this new company.
As our marketing guy would say at this point: Machine Up!