Vector Space Systems 3D printed a cheap mini rocket

The aerospace industry has yet another 3D printing success story on its hands. Vector Space Systems, a micro satellite space launch company comprised of new-space industry veterans from SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, McDonnell Douglas and Sea Launch, recently had a successful launch of their P-20 rocket, a sub-scale test vehicle for the Vector 1, in advance of orbital launches in 2018.

P-20 Rocket

Their 12 foot long P-20 rocket is specifically designed to launch Micro Satellites, and is currently the only launch system dedicated to micro spacecraft. Vector’s goal is to provide the increasing amount of space startups with more cost effective launch-enabling platforms and vehicles. The company is also quite ambitious, with large-scale sub-orbital test flights planned for 2017, and orbital launches following in 2018. A large number of the P-20’s components are 3D printed, which is what helps drive the price down significantly, making it ideal for smaller companies to utilize. It is capable of carrying loads of up to 50 kg into a low Earth orbit, and did so for Finnish company Iceye on July 30th.

Vector Space Systems test
The Vector team prior to launch in the Mojave Desert. Image:

About the partnership with Iceye

Iceye works on expanding the availability of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data to support decision making in areas such as trade, exploration, relief efforts, farming, and environmental protection. They are striving to launch and operate a constellation of micro satellites that carry their own compact and efficient SAR sensor technology.

Iceye engineers
Iceye engineers. Image:

“Iceye is honored to be a part of this inaugural test launch and to begin our partnership with Vector Space Systems,” said Iceye CEO Rafal Modrzewski. “With our plans to launch up to 30 satellites over the next five years, we expect to work closely with Vector Space Systems as a key partner in launching and refreshing our constellation for years to come.”

On the 2nd of August the two companies also announced that an agreement to conduct 21 launches had been finalized.

“Since Vector formed earlier this year, we have moved rapidly toward an orbital capability using our micro satellite launch vehicle. To have a satellite constellation as important and large as Iceye choose Vector as its launch vehicle is a reflection of our technology, team and development program,” said Jim Cantrell, CEO and co-founder of Vector Space Systems.

“We look forward to many future successes together in our partnership with Iceye and to their success as a leading provider of radar imagery from orbit. Our orbital launch capabilities are on a fast track for a debut flight in 2018, and we are continuing with our propulsion development and qualification testing, as well as vehicle manufacturing.”

Benefits for smaller enterprises

The reality of launching 30 satellites just a few years ago would have been very different for Iceye. In the majority of cases, small satellites are launched in large groups by companies like ULA or Arianespace, who only fly a dozen or so missions yearly. Finding a spot on one of those few launches would be tricky and costly, not to mention a hassle. Customizing the satellite to the rocket that it is hitching a ride on, booking your spot on a launch (often over a year away)…the logistical problems are numerous for smaller enterprises.

Large scale space launches per year

“We are already seeing traffic jams for a launch at the national ranges,” Virgin Galactic executive Will Pomerantz says. “You want to fly on date X, so does NASA, and so does the Air Force; you can imagine where a small entrepreneurial company would fall on the pecking order.”

This is where Vector Space Systems comes in. “Nobody is paying attention to those guys—they’re still treated like toys, like second-class citizens, they don’t have a reliable way to get to orbit,” Cantrell says. Together with John Garvey, he saw a chance to help smaller companies reach great heights. While they are not the only space launch company out there, they have big aspirations. “I’m going to dominate the small side,” he added.

Vector Space Systems
The P-20 rocket launch. Image: Vector Space Systems

How does 3D printing contribute?

3D printing will play a huge role in a solution.

“The Vector propulsion team has made tremendous progress in a very rapid manner, building and successfully testing an engine using 3D printed components within two months of the company’s founding,” Cantrell said. “The rapidity and success of this test sets the standard for the swift development of our launch vehicle and furthers our mission to revolutionize the way commerce accesses and utilizes space.” Their 3D printed single-piece injector runs on a unique propellant, consisting of liquid oxygen and densified propylene.

You can see footage of the launch here.

You might also be interested to see what other advancements 3D printing has contributed to in the aerospace industry. From Gilmour Space Technologies to NASA, innovations are happening everywhere.

Featured image: Vector Space Systems