ABOVE: The Leo Aerospace launch concept would launch rockets carrying satellites from high-altitude ballooons.
By LANDON WOODROOF
Like computers and cell phones, satellites have gotten smaller in recent years.
That’s been an inspiration to an upstart tech company that includes a Brentwood Academy graduate and hopes to make putting the satellites in orbit less expensive and more accurate.
Sure, some government organizations and corporations still send satellites into orbit that range from the hundreds to the thousands of pounds each, but increasingly demand has been growing for less massive units, called CubeSats.
Some of these satellites, which are cube-shaped as their name would suggest, are so tiny they can fit in the palm of your hand. The larger ones are about the size of a microwave.
These satellites have an immense amount of computing power and countless uses, from tracking cargo ships in isolated sections of the ocean, to searching for oil supplies, to sensing nutrients in the soil in different parts of the globe.
The diverse and awesome potential of these satellites has led to an explosion of interest in CubeSats by the business world. There is a problem, though.
“The issue is that there is not currently a great way to get them to space,” Bryce Prior, vice president of operations and strategy at Leo Aerospace, explained. “The only way to get to space right now is by ride-sharing. Basically it’s just hitchhiking.”
What happens is that a company like SpaceX will do a launch of a large satellite and allow some smaller satellites to come along as a secondary payload if there is extra room.
“It’s really disadvantageous,” Prior, a 2013 Brentwood Academy graduate, said. “They kind of get just thrown out on the way up. They don’t get to choose when they get to launch. They don’t get to choose where they go to. It costs a lot of money.”
Prior and his partners at Leo Aerospace think they have found the solution to this problem.
Leo Aerospace was founded in Los Angeles, California in October 2017 by a group of friends and fellow Purdue University graduates.
The company is striving to make the CubeSat revolution a development that can benefit business and industry by offering a cheaper, quicker and more reliable way for companies to get their small satellites into space.
Basically, Leo Aerospace plans to use high-altitude balloons to take rockets high up into the atmosphere where those rockets will launch the satellites.
Leo Aerospace is limiting its potential clients to those whose satellites are 50 pounds or smaller.
“It’s specifically tailored for the little guys,” Prior said.
The company’s balloon and rocket based plan does not involve many new technologies.
“All the tech already exists,” Prior said. “You just have to put it together the right way, and it will work and better solve the problem for small satellite developers.”
This strategy puts Leo Aerospace at odds with many other companies in the field, who are spending money trying to build new models of engines, rockets and propellant tanks.
“We’re saying, ‘Stop, that’s unnecessary,’” Prior said.
Prior believes that Leo Aerospace will be able to offer customers an array of advantages that other companies cannot.
For instance, Prior said that members of the Leo Aerospace team have spoken with more than 160 potential customers to ask them what they need from a launch system.
One of the most popular answers had to do with turnaround times.
Prior said that small satellite developers currently have to wait an average of two or two-and-a-half years before their satellites are launched.
“We hope to be able to say, ‘Call us six months ahead of time, and we can get you that launch,’” Prior said.
Leo Aerospace also seeks to give its customers more control over where in space their satellite is launched. Under the current hitch-a-ride system, you kind of have to just go where the main rocket goes.
“We want to be able to say you get to pick where you want your satellite to go,” Prior said.
By focusing on smaller loads and using preexisting technologies, Leo Aerospace also wants to keep costs low for customers.
Space, though, is not a cheap place to do business.
“Even though we are trying to take a low cost approach, it’s still very cost intensive” to get an aerospace company up and running, Prior said.
Leo Aerospace recently started a pre-seed funding round to cover costs for more in depth analysis and prototyping that can later be used to attract funding from other investors.
Those interested in finding more information on Leo Aerospace and their mission can find it at its page on Netcapital.
Although Leo Aerospace just formally became a company a few months ago, Prior said that the idea for the company was born several years ago. What began as a school project at Purdue soon morphed into something else.
“We saw there was a huge need in the space industry for the type of technology we were developing,” Prior said. “We started developing it with customers’ needs in mind and out came this company.”
The idea for the name of the company came in 2016 in Germany. Prior and Leo Aerospace co-founder Dane Rudy were in the country working for DLR, the German equivalent of NASA.
They were based in the city of Braunschweig, which is known as the Lion City. That, combined with the fact that a star in the Leo constellation, Regulus, is one of the brightest in the night sky led to the name.
Prior said he fell in love with space at a young age when his dad took him to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
“It just really struck a chord with me,” he said. “It was like ever since that day I knew that whatever it might be I wanted to do something that had to do with space.”
His love of science was fostered at Brentwood Academy, where he said he first realized that engineering provided the surest path to get where he wanted to go.
He studied space propulsion and vehicle design at Purdue University’s School of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering. Upon graduation he went to work for Northrup Grumman Corporation, where he helped with propulsion engineering on the James Webb Space Telescope.
At night and on weekends, though, Prior found himself thinking about and working on the problems that Leo Aerospace is dedicated to solving.
“It finally reached the point where I had to ask myself, ‘Which one of these careers do I want to take forward?’” Prior said. “I chose to pursue my own company. I had to take that leap of faith.”