It seems that in 2016 we will see another small launch system for microgravity experiments. Generation Orbit Launch Services, Inc. signed Space Act Agreement for GOLauncher-1 rocket with NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC) on May 2, 2016.
Generation Orbit Launch Services, Inc. is American company established in Atlanta in 2011. Since it’s establishing, Company is focused on developing own air-launched rocket system which could serve as launch vehicle for nanosatellites or platform for microgravity experiments. Company motto is “Your Orbit on Time" which basically describes main features of their two present projects - GOLauncher-1 and GOLauncher-2 – cost and time effectiveness. Both are small liquid fueled rockets launched from small twin-engine jet plane (probably Learjet 35 which was used by Generation Orbit Launch Services, Inc. for their GO-FET avionics testing platform). Both GOLauncher vehicles will operate in similar manner to Pegasus rocket by Orbital ATK: carrier jet plane will take off from ordinary runway, reach specified altitude, release rocket which will remain attached under fuselage and return to runway. Rocket will start engine and in case of GOLauncher-1 will fly with suborbital trajectory with 90 kg -140 kg payload. It will provide 7 minutes of microgravity conditions during flying for 300 km distance; rocket will also offer possibility of hypersonic flight for testing hypersonic planes or technologies, but without reaching sub orbital altitudes. Next rocket will deploy payload container which will return to Earth using parachutes. GOLauncher-2 is more ambitious project - it assumes using same technology for reaching LEO orbit for deploying Cubesat, microsatellites or nanosatellites with low cost. Rocket will be longer than GOLauncher-1 and will reach altitude of 740 km with 45 kg of payload with inclination in range of 0° to 98.7°. Project assumes that rocket will be easy to operate and launch with low cost and will find customers among research institutes or commercial small satellite operators.
Generation Orbit Launch Services, Inc. signed Space Act Agreement on May 2, 2016 with NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC) to start cooperation under GOLauncher-1; under agreement, Company will manufacture technology demonstrator (GOLauncher-1 Inert Test Article, called GO1-ITA), which will be tested under NASA’s Gulfstream III research aircraft already in 2016. Tests performed in 2016 will include in-flight tests under Gulfstream III and release testing. Ultimate objective is developing new, reliable, cost and time effective launch vehicle which will easy to operate using ordinary small carrier plane. Both sides were enthusiastic under signing public-private partnership agreement. For Generation Orbit Launch Services, Inc. NASA is source of technical support during most crucial tests of their prototype. According to A.J. Piplica Chief Operating Officer in Generation Orbit Launch Services, Inc.:
“We’re incredibly excited about the prospect of flying the GO1-ITA later this year with NASA. The data we’ll gather will allow us to build confidence in our aircraft performance estimates and demonstrate the release of our vehicle from the aircraft for the first time... ...The team at NASA Armstrong brings an immense amount of intelligence and experience in the realm of flight testing, harkening back to the original supersonic and hypersonic flight platforms. We look forward to working with them over the course of the program as we develop a modern hypersonic flight test platform for the 21st century.”
For NASA every innovative project which could help in cost cutting is precious. Research and development is crucial, but very expensive; every technology implemented in satellites, rockets or spacecrafts should be tested in microgravity. Sometimes tests need to take longer, but sometimes 7 minutes offered by GOLauncher-1 is enough. In such cases using small jet and small launch vehicle will reduce costs and also help in speeding up many projects, which now are waiting due the limited number of small launch vehicles. It is also worth to mention that possibility of hypersonic tests is also important-NASA is going to start in 2017 project of Low Boom Flight Demonstration Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) X-plane, which surely needs multiple test flights of scaled model. Also, with possible further cooperation on GOLauncher-2 NASA could acquire optional small satellite launch vehicle. According to Dennis Hines, Director for Programs at NASA Armstrong:
“NASA Armstrong is very pleased and extremely enthusiastic about working with Generation Orbit Launch Services on the separation analysis, captive carry test, and the inert test launch of their air launched liquid rockets. This is a project that was selected to create a public-private partnership as part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate’s 2015 Announcement of Collaborative Opportunity. NASA Armstrong’s expertise in vehicle integration, air launch, and flight research is ideally suited for this partnership.”
On picture above: NASA Gulfstream III research plane designated for further tests of GOLauncher-1.