Air launch with a twist
By Cat Hofacker|January 2021
Every space launch company has its own secret sauce it believes will set it apart from competitors. For Aevum Inc., that something is an autonomous, unpiloted, rocket-launching aircraft. The 4-year-old Alabama startup in December unveiled this jet-powered reusable carrier drone that would be paired with the launch vehicles the company is also developing to form Ravn X, a launch system for satellite payloads of up to 500 kilograms, depending on the orbital altitude.
With its sleek black-and-white fuselage and tapered nose, the 24-meter drone more closely resembles the design of a supersonic airliner than the nonsupersonic carrier aircraft that rivals including Northrop Grumman and Virgin Orbit fly to air-launch their rockets.
That resemblance is intentional, Aevum founder and CEO Jay Skylus says. The Ravn X aircraft would be a precursor to a future variant, Ravn without the X, that would fly at supersonic speeds. This, Skylus says, would give Aevum an edge over its air-launch rivals as well as companies that launch conventional rockets from the ground. “Our model is fundamentally different and really, I believe, built to be sustainable as opposed to our peers and industry that are dependent on this launch-site infrastructure.”
Ravn X, which has yet to fly, could take off from any of the 11 FAA-licensed spaceports in the U.S. In the first operational flight scheduled for mid-2021, the carrier drone will speed down a runway at the Cecil Spaceport in Jacksonville, Florida, its two-stage rocket strapped to its belly. Inside will be an undisclosed number of three-unit and larger cubesats for the U.S. Space Force. The $4.9 million experimental mission dubbed ASLON-45, short for Agile Small Launch Operational Normalizer, is part of a Pentagon plan to build up the small-launch industry for more rapid small satellite launches.
Once aloft, software will command the rocket to be released at an altitude between 9 and 18 kilometers, and the drone’s flight computer will direct the drone either back to Jacksonville or to another destination calculated by an algorithm, based on data including air speed and weather conditions from the onboard sensor suite.
Aevum expects this flexibility of launch and landing sites to be especially attractive to military customers. “This makes it almost impossible to predict where Ravn X is going to take off from” and land, Skylus says. “So our adversaries who are targeting launch sites to keep us on the ground, this will be nearly impossible for them for intercept because we can literally change each launch site within the hour.”
Leading up to the Jacksonville launch, Aevum plans to conduct a series of taxi and flight tests to verify the Ravn X hardware and software, the goal being to earn an airworthiness certificate from FAA. That certificate is not a requirement of the ASLON-45 launch, but would set Aevum up for future launches, Skylus says, because Ravn X could then potentially fly from any U.S. airfield with a 1.6-kilometer (1-mile) runway the drone needs for takeoff.