Leo Aerospace Plans to Make SmallSat Launches Far More Accessible

A startup that plans to use high-altitude balloons to deploy rockets has successfully fired a test launch, moving closer to their goal of helping end the backlog of smallsats that wait months or longer to “hitch” a ride on larger rockets.

Leo Aerospace LLC, a Purdue University-affiliated startup based in Los Angeles, launched its first “rockoon,” a high-power rocket from a reusable balloon platform, from the Mojave Desert in southern California in December. A video is available at this direct link…

The company aims to revolutionize access to space for those looking to launch smallsats that weigh up to 25 kilograms, or about 110 pounds. The company plans to be a “dedicated” launch for microsatellites, serving one customer at a time.

SpaceWorks Enterprises Inc. issued a report last year estimating that as many as 2,600 smallsats will be launched over the next five years. To accomplish this, more companies that can send the satellites into space are needed.

Large aerospace launch companies generally cater more to large satellite companies, leaving microsatellite companies to wait to see if there is any leftover space available and the smallsat operator must try to find rockets that will deploy the equipment somewhere in the vicinity of where they would like to be located. Even then, this process can require months to maneuver into place after already waiting for months for smallsat deployment.

With the test launch completed, the startup founders are now planning to move on to their next phase, which involves raising $8 million to fund the company for the next two years. They also are looking to add personnel, including a VP for business development and VP of engineering. They are looking for people experienced in the aerospace industry who can bring valuable aerospace know-how to the firm.

The team spent two months in Australia last summer taking part in Startmate, an accelerator program, and plans to conduct at least some of their launches Down Under. Leo Aerospace’s long-term business plan includes engaging in a number of launches from Australia as regulations and air traffic can allow companies to fly more frequently,.

The startup’s work aligns with Purdue’s Giant Leaps celebration, celebrating the university’s global advancements in space exploration as part of Purdue’s 150th anniversary. This is one of the four themes of the yearlong celebration’s Ideas Festival, designed to showcase Purdue as an intellectual center solving real-world issues.

Leo Aerospace received their start at Purdue and received guidance from the Purdue Foundry, an entrepreneurship and commercialization accelerator in Discovery Park’s Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship. The rocket scientists developed their business plan and learned what they needed to do to move forward.

Leo Aerospace already has begun taking letters of intent from smallsat companies. Hepfer said the company doesn’t plan to start selling launches until it is ready to begin launches. Leo plans to begin doing suborbital launches next year and break the edge of space by 2021. Suborbital launches allow scientists to gather information about the atmosphere and other research data.

The goal is to be able to start launching microsatellites into orbit by 2022. Those microsatellites will be able to monitor the health of crops, to track global commodity supplies and to advance scientific exploration.

Executive Comments

Michael Hepfer, head of product development for Leo Aerospace and a senior in Purdue’s School of Industrial Engineering, said it was thrilling to see that first launch after all those months of hard work and planning. This launch confirmed early testing that using high-altitude balloons and rockets to send microsatellites into space will work. It’s like taking a bus compared to taking an Uber. He added the advantage Leo Aerospace will have over larger companies is that the firm’s clients will be the smallsat companies and they will be able to deploy to precise locations. Additionally, using the high-altitude balloon as a launch pad will save money because it will deploy the rocket from up to 11 miles into the atmosphere. At that altitude, there is 95 percent less atmosphere, meaning there is much less drag, which means Leo Aerospace can use smaller rockets and less fuel.
     Hepfer noted that the launch in December, which did not include a satellite deployment, provided Leo Aerospace with valuable data. He said the firm received great information about what happens to the balloon craft when the rocket is launching because it shakes, vibrates, and twists — next time a bigger rocket is launched, the company will know what changes need to be made beforehand. The big challenge was figuring out how to integrate a high-altitude balloon with the logistics of attaching a rocket to it and then launching it remotely,. A big part of that was automating a many of the systems as the balloon is going to be out of sight when the rocket is launched.

Dane Rudy, the company’s CEO and a graduate of Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering, added that the company believes it should be as easy to put a microsatellite into space as it is to ship a package across the country. There will be no more need for ridesharing or hitchhiking.

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