Zero 2 Infinity plans to fire a rocket above controlled airspace for the first time in October, an important milestone in the Spanish firm’s effort to build Bloostar, a small satellite launch vehicle that rises through the atmosphere on a balloon.
“We’ve test flown balloons, flown tanks at high altitude and ignited rockets at sea level, but we have not yet fired a rocket from high altitude,” said Jose Mariano Lopez Urdiales, Zero 2 Infinity founder and chief executive. “Ignition at high altitude is a big step for us.”
With Bloostar, Zero 2 Infinity is seeking to address growing demand for launch vehicles driven by firms planning to establish constellations with tens, hundreds or even thousands of small satellites to provide customers with communications, Earth observation and remote sensing.
“Launch is a huge bottleneck,” Lopez Urdiales said. “Who is going to get those thousands of satellites in those constellations into orbit in a sustainable way? That is a challenge that needs to be solved.”
As Lopez Urdiales sees it, startups and established firms building large constellations of small satellites may have trouble finding reliable ways to augment and resupply their constellations. “To close the business model, you need a constellation that can be resupplied and that is not a solved problem,” he said.
Unlike competitors planning to offer satellite customers rides on air- or ground-launched rockets, Bloostar begins its journey by rising slowly through Earth’s atmosphere on a balloon launched from a boat near the Canary Islands. That journey takes about 90 minutes.
At an altitude of approximately 22 kilometers, Bloostar is designed to separate from the balloon and fire six methane and oxygen-fueled engines to propel it to an altitude of 80 kilometers. There, six additional engines ignite to carry the spacecraft to 400 kilometers before a single engine sends the satellite to 600 kilometers.
“For Bloostar, it’s not so much about launching from a balloon but rather igniting our engines from above the dense atmospheric layers,” said Guillaume Girard, Zero 2 Infinity partner. “At 22 kilometers, the atmosphere is so thin that it makes our overall system less complex to achieve, with a very light structure and a capacity for large volume.”
Bloostar is designed to loft satellites weighing 75 kilograms or less into sun synchronous orbits. “We have surveyed the market and this seems to be the sweet spot,” Lopez Urdiales said.
Because Bloostar does not need to minimize drag on its journey through Earth’s atmosphere it is shaped more like a mushroom cap than a missile. The payload fairing is two-meters in diameter, which means Bloostar can carry satellites with solar panels and antennas already deployed, Girard said.
That design provides one competitive advantage, Lopez Urdiales said. Another advantage Zero 2 Infinity offers when compared with U.S. launch providers is that customers will not have to contend with U.S. government rules, including the U.S. State Department’s International Traffic and Arms Regulations, he added.
Since 2012, the firm has been launching balloons of various sizes to carry research experiments and technology demonstration payloads to altitudes of 20 to 40 kilometers. Through that work, Zero 2 Infinity has earned more than 900,000 Euros ($1 million) in revenue, Lopez Urdiales said.
Zero 2 Infinity was established in Barcelona in 2009 by Lopez Urdiales, former general manager of the Barcelona Aeronautics and Space Association. The firm announced plans for Bloostar in 2015. Since then, 10 satellite operators in Denmark, Japan, Russia, Columbia and Italy have signed letters of intent to spend 240 million Euros on Bloostar flights, Lopez Urdiales said.
Customers will pay 4 million Euros for a single Bloostar launch and 2 million Euros per flight when they purchase a series. “If you buy several flights it’s a better price than if you buy a single flight,” Lopez-Urdiales said. “Buying several flights would be typical for constellation replenishment. We want repeat customers.”
Although Bloostar will not be the least expensive launch option for small satellites that can ride as secondary payloads on larger rockets, Bloostar customers will be able to select the date and time of their launches as well as the elevation and azimuth of their orbits. “We think customers will pay a premium for that,” Lopez Urdiales said.
Zero 2 Infinity plans to slowly increase the amount of weight each Bloostar can launch without increasing the price. In the future, the firm also hopes to develop an extra-large Bloostar designed to loft 150-kilogram satellites and to slowly turn Bloostar into a reusable launch vehicle, Lopez Urdiales said.