Yesterday, space logistics startup, Aevum, Inc. debuted the world’s first autonomous launch vehicle (AuLV), Ravn X. It’s a small-launch delivery vehicle that’s part reusable drone, part expendable two-stage rocket, and is the largest Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) ever developed. What’s the big idea? Lightning-fast small satellite delivery from anywhere on Earth into orbit.
The Orbital Objective
‘Small-launch’ refers to payloads (in this case, satellites) that weigh 1,000 pounds or less. There are many small-launch companies today; Rocket Labs is one of the more successful commercial small payload-delivery service providers. But current technologies create a huge lag between receiving the customer’s order and then actually launching the customer’s payload. It’s that dreaded payload processing stage – a period that takes months for any single order.
Aevum’s mission is to deliver smallsat payloads to low-Earth orbit (LEO) within 180 minutes of receiving the customer’s payload. That’s compared to the current industry leader’s 30-day payload processing period. For the record, LEO is somewhere between 100 and 600 miles above Earth (so, 180 minutes sounds pretty neat). And, according to Aevum founder/CEO Jay Skylus, mission accomplished. Well, almost.
Over the next 18 months, Aevum’s fully autonomous drone will undergo testing, certification, and regulatory reviews. Upon passage of those hurdles, the first Ravyn X fleet will be operational.
Autonomous Launch Paradigm
The key to Aevum’s incredible turnaround speed is the autonomous launch architecture – a predominately software-based workflow structure. The fully-autonomous, intelligent software environment engineered by Aevum “optimizes every launch, taking into account variables including weather conditions, air traffic, orbital destination, payload weight, ground crew schedules, and other complex logistics processes to provide an end-to-end seamless service, autonomously.”1
The architecture and bone-deep automation also keep Aevum’s staff size at 10% that of its peers. And, with the advent of the pilotless 55,000-pound, 60-foot wingspan Ravn X, there’s no risking a pilot’s life.
The AuLV’s expendable rocket component will bear a payload capacity of 220 to 1,100 pounds. In-flight, Ravn X will eject the two-stage rocket, and the rocket will proceed to boost the satellite payload into LEO with surgical precision. The intact drone portion of the Ravn X assembly automatically heads back to its base after the big drop. The AuLV takes off from and returns to the same one-mile runway and rolls to its designated 8,000-square-foot hangar.
Now that Aevum’s secured nearly $1B (yes, one billion) in various government contracts, you can probably bank on the startup becoming a household name. The first job on the company’s docket is a $4.9M U.S. Space Force contract for the ASLON-45 mission, slated for late 2021. Following that, a 20-mission, 9-year contract with the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise.
Ultimately, Aevum intends to court a clientele that’s 85% commercial and 15% defense and research agencies, with the execution of a dozen or fewer launches per year for a healthy $5M to $7M a pop. And the way things are looking for this 4-year-old rocket science startup, that doesn’t seem too far off.
1. Aevum Unveils Smallsat-Launching Drone Aircraft – Space News