Toy-like rockets could someday carry tiny satellites and human ashes to space

5 Comments

Credit: ESA/NASA/Hubble

When Microlaunchers was founded in 1995, rocket launches were dominated by large companies and governments interested in shipping huge amounts of cargo up to space.

Things aren’t too different today–the space industry still revolves around getting large items like telecommunications satellites to orbit–but change is happening. Companies like SpaceX and Firefly are reducing the cost for small payloads to make it to space. In 2013, more shoebox-sized satellites known as CubeSats launched than in all years prior combined.

Microlaunchers, which wants to manufacture large numbers of rockets that weigh anywhere between 220 pounds and 60 tons, is catching its second wind based on that trend. The startup would charge $50,000 to launch a single 2.2-pound CubeSat, and provide a private rocket that can launch at anytime weather permits. CEO Charles Pooley imagines rockets and launchpads small enough to be moved and handled as if they are toys. Larger rockets would be capable of carrying more cargo. Dozens could be lined up in a single area and launch every hour or two.

A rendering of what a Microlaunchers launch pad and rocket might look like. Image courtesy of Microlaunchers.

A rendering of what a Microlaunchers launch pad and rocket might look like. Image courtesy of Microlaunchers.

“These things would be far smaller and simpler than any rocket in the business,” Pooley said in an interview. “As soon as it becomes physically possible to make thousands of these, (Microlaunchers rockets) will be sold.”

A 2.2-pound CubeSat would generally cost around $12,600 to send to low-Earth orbit through SpaceX, or $20,000 through an emerging option like Firefly. But with a SpaceX rocket, a CubeSat maker might have to wait months before space opens up. Then the launch schedule is at the mercy of the largest holders of cargo. Firefly can provide greater control for small companies, but they still need to buy most or all of the $8 or 9 million worth of cargo space it will provide each launch.

Microlaunchers co-founders Pooley and COO Blair Gordon have waited 20 years to see the rockets built. This year, the company embarked on raising $600,000 on AngelList and was accepted into the Las Vegas Start Up Hive incubator. If the money comes through, Microlaunchers plans to build its first fleet of 100 rockets.

“There is demand for it,” Gordon said. “We just have to get to the next phase.”

Most CubeSats have been dedicated to collecting images and other data on Earth. But Pooley and Gordon are wary of sending many more tiny satellites into Earth’s orbit. Each new satellite increases the chances of collisions, which create dangerous space debris. Instead, they would like to see small spacecraft dedicated to exploring other parts of the solar system and beyond. Each pound sent beyond low-Earth orbit will cost roughly $125,000.

Easier launches for tiny amounts of cargo would also open up opportunities for a rare service: space burials. Since 1992, cremated human remains have been released into space. Microlaunchers foresees the possibility of doing thousands a month.

“This is a brand new way of approaching space that does not yet exist that can,” Pooley said. “The problem is getting people to grasp the idea.”

5 Comments

microalunchers

TonyM: No another band of debris further out. Between the orbits of Earth and Mars is over a trillion times the volume of space, filled with many near Earth asteroids. No collisions.
The main objections to LEO is that
[1] not exploration anymore
[2] out of sight 99% of the time, and when in view, zips across the sky quickly.
[3] and will contribute to collision hazard

Space “burial” as a reality was pioneered by Celestis, and though there’s a major flaw in their plan–no launch means–they have placed in orbit 85 samples in their approximately 30 year history. The public has been “educated” about the concept, so a plan based on launch means can work (secondary payload is not launch means).

There may be errors in the part mentioning prices for SpaceX and Firefly. It’s being checked and will be corrected if needed.

robbinb

In the 1965 Movie, The Loved One, a satire on the lavish funeral industry in Southern California, one of the characters introduces a new service, in which ashes are shot into space using small rockets. Rev. Wilbur Glenworthy is played by comedian Jonathan Winters. The movie is based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel of the same name, published in 1948. Presumably the rocket was part of the screen adaptation.

Ondrej

Hmm, I like everything space-y, but I’m afraid that with this kind of development, the low Earth orbit may form an increasingly hard to penetrate shell of debris around the planet.

blair@microlaunchers.com

Ondrej we agree, that’s why Microlaunchers focus is beyond orbit.

TonyM

So, you’re just going to create another band of debris further out? Just what is the sense in doing that in order to satisfy someone’s whim for a “way out” burial?

You should remember this motto: “Just because you CAN do something, that doesn’t mean you MUST do it”

And creating a future dangerous junk heap for the sake of grabbing a present profit shows that you have had no thought for all those who will later have to deal with it.

There are plenty of people who are working on ridding Near-Earth Orbit of satellites that have outlived their usefulness – mainly through running out of maneuvering fuel. Until such time as they can be refueled, these large pieces of junk can easily be de-orbited by harpoon drag devices and the like; but “toy” rockets like yours will come into the category of things that, although easier to track and avoid than nuts and bolts and paint flakes, would be just too many and too small for anyone to afford to send up loads more rockets to hunt them, trap them and de-orbit them.

So, before you send even one of your devices up, think twice – otherwise you had better have all your gains stashed away in an offshore account in the Cayman Islands and an open ticket to somewhere with no extradition treaty with the US, when someone comes calling for the price of removing your junk.

Comments are closed.