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ABL Space Systems Upgrades Its Smallsat Launcher
Matthew Greenwood posted on February 25, 2019 |

ABL Space Systems, a company specializing in small satellite launches, is furthering development of its RS1 launch vehicle.

The upgraded RS1 includes a larger payload diameter of six feet and new gas generator engines that will power the rocket into orbit. The launch vehicle will now be able to deliver smallsats up to 1,200 kilograms to a 200-kilometer low inclination orbit, or a smaller 875-kilogram payload to a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit. The updated price for these deliveries is $12 million per launch, down from the previously estimated cost of $17 million.

The RS1 is tiny compared to conventional rockets such as SpaceX’s Falcon that deliver massive satellites into orbit and supply payloads to the International Space Station. But there are benefits to thinking small: “In both engineering and manufacturing, small launch vehicles are fundamentally simpler than large launch vehicles, and there are many opportunities for efficiency gains,” said ABL CEO Harry O’Hanley.

Though ABL was only founded in 2017, the company has quickly identified the opportunity of specializing in small launches. The rocket maker is positioning itself to capitalize on the booming smallsat industry, which has enjoyed rapid growth and investment in recent years thanks to technological advances in lightweight materials and microcomputer components. The demand for smallsats continues, with growth expected to reach about $7.5 billion by 2022, and projected to make up a 29 percent share of overall launch market revenue over the next seven years.

“The global launch vehicle market is still missing a truly low-cost option in the 500- to 1,500-kilogram capacity range,” said ABL CFO Dan Piemont. “We’re confident RS1 fills an important role in the market.” The rocket maker intends to carve out a niche for itself by taking on missions such as bulk CubeSat deployment, delivery of three to five larger satellites at a time, or satellite launches that have aggressive mission requirements.

NASA launches new small satellite missions.

ABL recently completed its first development vehicle and conducted a successful tanking test. Its next step: an RS1 stage test in the second half of this year, and the company is targeting a first launch in 2020. ABL expects to start commercial launches soon after that.

The company is confident that its innovative product will have a real impact in the smallsat sector—and will be able to do so affordably. “We’ve worked swiftly to prove out innovative, low-cost manufacturing methods that have dramatically lowered our costs and we’re excited to pass along the gains to our customers,” said O’Hanley.

Want to read more about the latest developments in small satellites? Check out CubeSat to Attempt Solar Sail in Orbit.