Generation Orbit To Launch Small Satellites From Cecil Field in Jacksonville

Nov. 29, 2013
Tom Patten

(JAA Admin Note: Correct name of airport is Cecil Airport)

Cecil Field is the Naval Air Base which was closed by BRAC in 1993 and finally decommissioned in 1999. In 2010, the FAA designated Cecil Field as a spaceport for commercial launch operations. It was the first Spaceport designated by the FAA for horizontal launch operations. That makes Cecil the perfect site for a small commercial space company based in Atlanta, GA to begin its operations, according to Dr. John Olds, co-founder and CEO of Generation Orbit Launch Services.

Generation Orbit (GO) will launch three small satellites, often known as CubeSats, from a rocket carried by a modified Gulfstream GIII business jet from Cecil field over the Atlantic Ocean. The company won a competitively-bid contract from NASA under the Enabling eXploration and Technology (NEXT) program. The $2.1 million contract makes NASA the company’s first customer for its GOLauncher 2, which is currently in development. “And in the commercial business, any time you can sell the first one, the rest are a lot easier,” Dr. Olds said.

In an interview with the Florida chapter of the Space Tourism Society, Olds said that the company is focused on launching small satellites … which GO defines as satellites weighing less than 100 pounds. The satellites are often called NanoSats or CubeSats, because they are often shaped like a cube measuring 10cmX10cmX10cm. CubeSat has become something of a general term to describe small satellites, and Dr. Olds explained that the CubeSat standard has become a unit of measure. “So you’ll see things like ‘three units’, or 3U CubeSats of 6U CubeSats or 12U CubeSats, and that’s meant to convey a unit of measuring in CubeSat-speak.

“The three that we’re launching for NASA under NEXT, each of them are 3U. So three 3U spacecraft are going to be on our first ride in 2016.”

CubeSats have been made possible by advances in miniaturization of electronics. Dr. Olds said that those advances make it possible for small satellites to complete missions that once required large spacecraft weighing thousands of kilograms or more. The small satellites work in constellations, networked together, allowing them to make precise measurements of atmospheric conditions, capture imagery, facilitate communications and data exchange or conduct remote sensing functions. “Our rocket is capable of launching 45 kilograms total,” He said.

Dr. Olds (pictured) said that Generation Orbit is a “horizontal launch, horizontal return configuration, which is a perfect match for Cecil because they already have a commercial spaceport license to do that. Our system uses a Gulfstream business jet … a pretty widely-available, easy-to-maintain, low-cost very capable platform for small launches like this. We mate the rocket underneath the centerline, underneath the belly of that GIII, fly out over the Atlantic Ocean, and do a pitch-up maneuver to release the rocket.”

The GoLauncher 2 rocket which will carry the NASA satellites is two stages. The first stage is a solid rocket booster, and the second stage uses a liquid fuel. “It can insert payloads up to 45 kg into low-Earth orbit heading east or northeast out of Jacksonville.”

Generation Orbit plans to fly “Captive Carry” tests early in 2014. In those tests, an inert rocket will be carried out over the Atlantic Ocean under the GIII. Later, a single-stage sub-orbital rocket will be launched from the airplane, fly to a high altitude and be recovered by a parachute. Dr. Olds said that will allow the company to learn how to separate the rocket from the airplane, and how to operate within Cecil and on the test range. “All of that is very valuable before you launch something to orbit,” he said.

But Dr. Olds says that the sub-orbital launches can also eventually be revenue-producing. “We think there are customers for that.”

But he said that, paced by the NASA NEXT award, the company will very quickly move into the orbital phase of their operations. Commercial clients, he said, want to have the service operating as quickly as possible. “So we’ll quickly move from the GoLauncher 1 to the GoLauncher 2.”

Generation Orbit Launch Services is two years old. The company began as a division of Spaceworks, which provides the primary financial support.

Dr. Olds said that the small satellite launch market is the fastest-growing segment of the commercial space industry.

The company chose Cecil over the better-known launch facility in Titusville, FL, because that location is viewed primarily as a vertical-launch facility. The former Shuttle runway is being considered for horizontal launch capabilities, but it has not yet been licensed for such operations. There are also a lot of major players in the commercial launch industry, such as ULA and SpaceX, operating from Titusville. “For a small company doing horizontal launch operations out of there, it would be small fish in a big pond,” Dr. Olds said. “At Cecil, we’re quite a good match. They’re (JAA) an aggressive, can-do sort of an organization, and we’re small too, so it’s a good match. The folks in Jacksonville have been great to work with, it’s close to us, location’s great, we’re a great fit size-wise, there are local personnel there to support us when we need them in terms of infrastructure, so it’s a tough one to beat.”

Dr. Olds said that currently, only a few suborbital missions are planned through the end of 2015. The inaugural mission of NASA NEXT is currently planned for the end of 2016. Operations will ramp up in 2017 and 2018 “and we project we will be at our nominal capacity of two launches per month by 2019 and beyond, so we’re hoping to fly 24 or 25 times per year out of Jacksonville. We’re able to do that because we’re able to use a very responsive, highly-reusable system.”

There are additional growth opportunities beyond that, Dr. Olds said.

Overall, the commercial space launches are a synergistic relationship between the government and the private sector, in Olds’ view. “We’re at a time where commercial industry and private capital is at a point where we can do some things in space commercially, and it is better for the government to do other things in space. And so the synergy between the public sector and the private sector I think is very important, and it is still very critical for those of us involved in the commercial side of things. The government can make long-term investments, they can make infrastructure investments. People talk about human exploration of the Moon, or Mars, or asteroids … those are things that are very difficult for the private sector to do” though some are trying to do that. The private sector brings a lot of advantages in terms of operating and running a business. “We work in a competitive environment. We have to get our prices low, we are driven to be efficient, still operating very safely. But we also need to be affordable, so those are commercial market sector pressures. And so the two working together I think bring the best of what each can offer in order to field a system like this. I don’t want to be one of the naysayer people that says ‘it’s time for the government to get out of space launch’. Frankly, we need the government to continue to help us. And this NASA NEXT award is one of those public-private partnerships.”

eneration Orbit has begun the pre-license consultation with the FAA’s AST office that will lead to certification of the GoLauncher 1 and 2 boosters. Part of the AST office’s charter is to “promote the industry.”

Generation Orbit plans to have a ceremony early in 2014 to introduce the company to the public in Jacksonville. If all goes according to plan, northeast Florida and Cecil Airport will, in a few years, be a hub of commercial space activity with an important role to play in the industry.



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