Spaceflight startup Vector — which specializes in micro-rockets — plans to launch its first orbit-bound vehicles from Virginia in mid-2018. Last week, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that Vector would be conducting its first three commercial missions from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, a launch site at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. These will be the first Vector flights that carry satellites to space for commercial customers, and will help the company further validate the performance of its rockets.
Vector will be launching three Vector-R rockets, one of two types of vehicles the company is offering to customers. The Vector-R is a four-story-high vehicle that can loft satellites weighing up to 145 pounds into lower Earth orbit. The other vehicle is the Vector-H, which is larger, and capable of carrying 350 pounds into lower Earth orbit, but not as far along in terms of development as the Vector-R.
Ultimately, Vector wants to use these two vehicles to regularly launch small satellites, reaching a frequency of a hundred missions a year. The idea is to give small satellite manufacturers another option for getting their hardware into space. Right now, companies usually have to piggyback on someone else’s mission, using up any leftover space on a huge, multimillion-dollar rocket that’s carrying a bigger payload to orbit. Vector, however, is solely dedicated to launching the industry’s tinier probes, carrying up to a handful of spacecraft per flight. And the prices are cheap, too, starting between $1.5 million and $3 million for individual missions.
Vector is also advertising the company’s ability to launch from practically anywhere, with very minimal launch infrastructure. “We just need a nice flat spot somewhere,” Jim Cantrell, CEO and co-founder of Vector, tells The Verge. “And that’s the whole idea: to be able to launch hundreds of times a year, you have to be able to operate from a number of different sites.”
So far, Vector has proved that it can launch from at least two locations with ease. The company launched its first Vector-R prototype from California in May, and then another from Georgia in August. Neither of those rockets reached orbit, nor were they meant to; the goal was simply to test out flight hardware. Vector plans to do at least one additional flight like this in January, in which some new features of the vehicle will be tested. The company may do more tests before the Virginia launches, depending on how that mission goes, but so far Vector has had a lot of success. “I’m knocking on wood, but we haven’t had a single test failure,” says Cantrell. “And we’re hoping that continues.”
When looking for sites to launch its first commercial rockets, Vector originally focused on Alaska. Launching from the state makes it easy to send satellites into polar orbits — where they travel from north to south over the poles. However, Cantrell says many of Vector’s customers were eager to get launching right away, and Wallops in Virginia — which has extensive experience launching small rockets — was able to work with the company the fastest.
WE NEED AS MANY DOMESTIC SITES AS WE CAN HAVE.
“If you don’t have assets in space making money, then you’re losing money,” says Cantrell. “It was more important to them to launch six months earlier than to be in the best spot.” Vector isn’t releasing the names of their first three customers just yet, but it will in the coming months.
Cantrell says Vector will continue to look for other sites to fly from beyond Virginia. With a crew that can do launches remotely, the ultimate goal is to launch about five times a week from a handful of different locations across the US. “We need as many domestic sites as we can have,” says Cantrell. “We might have one or two Wallops flights on Monday, one Georgia flight Tuesday, a Florida flight Wednesday, and might have an Alaska flight Thursday, then you take Friday off. So eventually we have to find even more launch sites, that’s a critical thing.”