By Eric Swedlund –
Fledgling Manufacturer Boosts Local Industry
With advances in technology enabling satellites to become smaller, cheaper and better, it seems to follow that the rockets that launch them into orbit should do the same.
That concept led to the formation of Vector Space Systems, a microsatellite launch company that seeks to fill a growing market space by manufacturing smaller rockets for frequent and relatively inexpensive launches. Created by founders of SpaceX, which provides launch vehicles for NASA and commercial flights, Vector is producing the first rocket built exclusively for the microsatellite market. It opens the door to space for innovators who don’t need or can’t afford the traditional $100 million rocket launch to put their satellite in orbit.
Founded in April, Vector Space Systems announced in October that it will locate the company’s manufacturing facilities and headquarters in Tucson, at the Pima County Aerospace, Defense and Technology Business and Research Park, alongside both the established high-tech giant Raytheon Missile Systems and the fledgling World View Enterprises.
Jim Cantrell, CEO and co-founder of Vector Space Systems, explained the microsatellite industry with an analogy that reflects the changes Moore’s Law has brought about in the computing world. Mainframes that used to take up entire rooms were scaled down over time to personal computers and ultimately smart phones with astonishing computing power relative to their size. Now, he said, is a moment of enticing acceleration in the microsatellite industry.
“This whole idea stems from a recognition that the microsatellites that are emerging are really the equivalent of the PC in space,” Cantrell said. “I’m old enough to have started programming on mainframes and getting to space has been the same thing up until recently. What we have now is an exceptional growth period that is fueled by the microtechnology. That’s a new dynamic that has never really existed.”
Microsatellites range in size roughly from a breadbox to a laser printer. Vector offers the smallest satellite-launch vehicles on the market, the Vector-R, which can take 50 kilograms to orbit at a cost of $1.5 million, and the Vector-H, which can take 100 kilograms to orbit at a cost of $3 million.
“What used to be $100 million to build a satellite is now $100,000. What has not kept up pace with that evolution is the launch vehicles,” Cantrell said. “The big launch vehicles are always going to exist. But the business with microsatellites is a lot more innovative and people are flying lots of them.”
By 2020, Cantrell estimates worldwide launches of microsatellites will number about 800 annually. And Vector’s plans are aggressive, with a goal of 100 launch rockets each year.
“We’re trying to service that market directly and give them a rocket that’s scaled to the microsatellite,” Cantrell said. “Our business model is different. We’re going to mass produce these things so we can fly often.”
Part of what drew Vector to Tucson is the example of what their neighbor Raytheon has been able to accomplish in terms of large-scale manufacturing.
“We can clearly sell that many. The issue is can we manufacture and can we launch that many,” Cantrell said. “Raytheon is a master of building complex machines in mass numbers and we’re confident of that side of our analysis.”
The business is ramping up at a pace that surprises even its founders. Just four days after announcing the company’s headquarters would be in Tucson, Vector issued a press release to announce a $60 million agreement with York Space Systems for launches from 2019 to 2022.
“We’re making sales rather quickly. We’ve got the best team in the industry to do this sort of thing and the satellite builders are signing up. It’s exceeded all my expectations in every way,” Cantrell said. “When we first started the company, we thought it would take us nine months to raise the initial round and it took us 13 hours. The customers have flooded in because they see the team is credible and they see the product is credible.”
The purposes of the satellites are myriad, and companies from around the world are seeking Vector out for their ride into space.
“Our first customer is a Finnish company, Iceye, that is building a constellation of radar satellites,” Cantrell said. “They’re about the size of an inkjet printer and they go up and send radar waves down to the earth to create images, useful for ice-flow tracking and things like that. They’ve bought 21 launches from us.”
Another customer is PlanetiQ, a next-generation weather forecasting and climate-monitoring company that will put up 100 satellites and use GPS signals to create a highly accurate view of the Earth’s atmosphere.
“The technology is really quite incredible and it’s one of those things that has enabled microsatellites to do more,” Cantrell said. “We still deal with the limits of physics but you can get around that by having more satellites.”
In July, the company acquired 16-year-old aerospace engineering firm Garvey Space Systems to boost its engineering capability. A portion of Vector Space System’s engineering workforce will remain in California, while the launches are slated for Alaska and Florida. But the bulk of the company will be in Tucson.
Several factors led Vector to Tucson, among them the city’s long-standing reputation as a space-science hub, a good workforce and educational pipeline in the University of Arizona, and eager cooperation from elected officials and industry partners.
“We’re always raising money and when I go to venture capitalists and show them the slide that Pima County has passed a resolution to negotiate with us, that’s a very big plus. A lot of people in the investment community look at who else has put faith in them and they see a county that puts their skin in the game and that’s important,” Cantrell said.
“Hopefully we can become a magnet for people who want to start a business here. It’s a great place to do startups. I watched what World View has done here and I’ve talked to them about dealing with the county. I can see a lot of that happening, people coming to talk to us, and I fully intend to be an evangelist for doing business here.”
For Cantrell, Vector represents an exciting step forward in an industry that hadn’t seen the same sort of innovation as its early years.
“I left the space industry five years ago because it had become stodgy and old,” Cantrell said. “I’d been done with it and went off to do some other things, but this new energy brought me back into it because I think some new accomplishments can be made.”