As demand for access to space continues to grow, the satellites seem to be shrinking and a little Long Beach company is looking to capitalize.
Tucked away on the California State University of Long Beach's campus is Garvey Spacecraft Corp. John Garvey started the 6-year old company after more than 20 years in the aerospace and rocket business. His goal is to make a reliable, reusable and affordable launch vehicle for ultra-small satellites, those weighing around 20 pounds. Who would have use for such a small satellite?
"Everyone from the military to academia to private companies would be very interested in putting up a proprietary satellite, if it was feasible and fast," said Marco Caceres, a senior space analyst for Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group Corp. "The demand is there, but the price isn't where it needs to be yet."
A handful of companies have emerged over the past five years attempting to crack into the blossoming satellite business. Most, like El Segundo-based Space Exploration Technologies, which was started in 2002 by PayPal founder Elon Musk, focus on medium-sized cargo payloads. Those are payloads between 1,000 and 8,000 pounds.
"The demand is there for the medium-sized satellites right now," Caceres said. "But why not make the satellite smaller instead of the rocket bigger?"
Since the U.S. launched its first satellite in the late '50s, the prevailing theory has been the bigger the rocket, the better its chances of getting a payload into space. As a result, rockets have been big and heavy, and there was little incentive to shrink satellites. Today, satellites weigh up to 10,000 pounds.
"The rockets we use today to launch satellites have changed very little since the '60s and '70s," Garvey said.
Because the rockets are big, the price is big, too. Rockets designed to put 10,000 pound satellites in orbit will cost a prospective customer between $50 million and $100 million. But if a customer wants to launch a satellite that weighs, say, 100 pounds, the customer can piggyback with other satellites, but then the customer is dependent on others' schedules and the prices is still high.
This is where Garvey's strategy begins. Garvey and his partner, Eric Besnard, an aerospace engineering professor at Cal State Long Beach, see big savings in their small rockets.
Garvey's price point for launching nanosatellites sits between $500,000 and $1 million relatively low given that the next nearest competitor is Space X, which charges nearly $7 million for the smallest rocket.
To help make their rockets more portable and less expensive, Garvey and Besnard make their rocket frames out of aluminum, balsa wood and fiberglass and use engineering students from the college to help assemble and test the rockets.
Sitting in the middle of their lab is Prospector VII a 23-foot model that in April was successfully launched one mile into the air and recovered without event in the Mojave Desert.
"Our rocket fits in the back of an SUV and takes less than a day to set up," Garvey said. "Plus, it weighs less than 250 pounds. It's very practical."
However, those are only test rockets. He needs to develop bigger rockets that can launch payloads into space.
United Kingdom-based Surrey Satellite Technology LTD, the world's largest manufacturer of nanosatellites, has already successfully launched more than two dozen satellites with payloads anywhere from the size of a shoebox to the size of a small refrigerator.
Garvey Spacecraft has already received interest from the Air Force, which wants a quick-turnaround satellite
Garvey Spacecraft will launch its 14th test rocket this summer from the Mojave. Though he admits the company is still three or four years away from sending a satellite into orbit, Garvey said progress is being made.
"I look at where we are today and where we were when I started the company and I'm amazed. We're very close to a breakthrough."
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