Starting a company based on the launching of micro-satellites may be just as difficult as the rocket science itself.
A group of Purdue graduate students have set out to start a business specifically geared toward launching small satellites into space. They believe their new venture will be successful because there is a niche for their services.
The company, Leo Aerospace, takes its name from the term "low Earth orbit," which refers to orbits less than 1,200 miles from the surface of the Earth, where most satellites are located. The company is run by students who have always had a love for science. Being an astronaut is something that many children seem to want to be when they grow up, but actually keeping, nurturing and following through with that dream is something different entirely.
The company currently consists of five Purdue graduate students: Mike Hepfer, Drew Sherman, Abishek Murali, Dane Rudy and Bryce Prior.
When scientists, engineers or researchers need to have items launched into space, they normally enter a waiting list to launch with a much larger payload. With this new company, each client will have the full attention of the company, and most importantly, a lower cost.
Sherman and Murali both received their undergraduate degrees from Purdue in aeronautical and astronautical engineering. They are now both enrolled in the graduate school studying engineering management with a focus on aerospace engineering.
Leo Aerospace will use devices dubbed "rockoons," which are a combination of rockets and balloons.
While this technique may sound a bit unorthodox, the technology was first used in the 1950s by the United States military for launching. The balloon is similar to a large weather balloon and will float a very small rocket holding a similarly sized payload to a high elevation.
"The rocket is planned to be released from (an elevation of) around 18 kilometers," Sherman said via email, "(where) the atmosphere is 95 percent less dense."
The lack of atmospheric density allows for less drag, which means smaller rockets can be used.
The micro-satellites the company plans to jettison can be anywhere between 1 and 50 kilograms. Sherman explained that a rocket with a 25-kilogram payload should be around 4,000 pounds, or roughly the weight of a full-size sedan, which is a significant decrease in size compared to what Americans are used to seeing on television.
As of now, the company and its officials are having success getting the business off the ground.
"The company right now is mainly in the funding stage," Sherman said. "As the summer approaches, we will transition to technical development."
Leo Aerospace received assistance from the Purdue Foundry, an entrepreneurship accelerator associated with Purdue University.
"The Foundry helped us with a ton," Sherman said. "They helped by including us in LaunchBox, accepting us into the Midwest I-Corps Node and prepared us for the national I-Corps program."
The I-Corps modules are National Science Foundation initiatives for research grantees to view their work through a more economic lens.
As for testing, the company will use existing infrastructure.
"We plan on using some existing spaceports, as well as testing facilities in Black Rock (Desert in) Nevada," Sherman said. "These provide cleared airspace and other regulatory and safety advantages."
"When I was a kid, I was interested in all sorts of stuff," Murali said in an email. "I remember wanting to be a geologist, a paleontologist, and all sorts of other random science occupations. As I got older, I just got more and more interested in aircrafts and spacecrafts and I wanted to know how they were made, how they operate, etc. And that's what drove me to engineering, specifically aerospace engineering."
The budding company looks to launch its first suborbital flight by 2020 and its first satellite into orbit by 2022.