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High-altitude balloon
Team members of Leo Aerospace LLC, who created the startup while they were students at Purdue University, prepare to launch a rocket from a high-altitude balloon in Southern California’s Mojave Desert.

Start-up to Launch CubeSats from Hot Air Balloons

A new company wants to carve out a niche launching small satellites.

Leo Aerospace Inc., a start-up company that came out of Purdue University with plans to use high-altitude balloons to launch rockets into space, has successfully fired a test rocket. This moves the company closer to its goal of ending the backlog of microsatellites waiting months or longer to “hitch” a ride on larger rockets.

The Los Angeles-based firm successfully launched its first “rockoon,” a high-power rocket from a reusable balloon platform, in Southern California’s Mojave Desert this past December.

 “It was thrilling to see that first launch after all those months of hard work and planning,” says Michael Hepfer, head of product development for Leo Aerospace and a senior in Purdue’s School of Industrial Engineering. “It confirmed our early testing that using high-altitude balloons and rockets to send microsatellites into space would work.”

Leo Aerospace aims to revolutionize access to space for those looking to launch small satellites about the size of toasters, weighing up to about 55 lb. It plans to be a “dedicated” launch platform for microsatellites, serving one customer at a time.

SpaceWorks Enterprises Inc. issued a report last year estimating that as many as 2,600 nanosatellites or microsatellites will be launched over the next five years. To accomplish this, more companies that can send the satellites into space are needed.

“We at Leo believe it should be as easy to put a microsatellite into space as it is to ship a package across the country,” says Dane Rudy, the company’s chief executive officer and a graduate of Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering. “There will be no more need for ridesharing or hitchhiking.”

Large aerospace launch companies generally cater to large satellite companies and governments, leaving microsatellite companies waiting to see if there is any leftover space available. Microsatellite operators must also try to find rockets that will deploy their equipment somewhere in the vicinity of where they would like. Even then, it can take months to maneuver the small satellite into place after already waiting for months to be deployed.

Hepfer said the advantage Leo Aerospace will have over larger companies is that its clients will be the microsatellite companies, which will be able to deploy to precise locations.

Using a high-altitude balloon as a launch pad will save money because it will deploy the rocket from up to 11 miles into the atmosphere. At that altitude, there is 95% less atmosphere, meaning there is much less drag. That means Leo Aerospace can use smaller rockets and less fuel.

Leo Aerospace already has begun taking letters of intent from microsatellite companies. Hepfer indicated that the company doesn’t plan to sell launches until it is ready to begin them. Leo plans to begin suborbital launchings next year and go higher, breaking the edge of space by 2021. Suborbital launches let scientists gather data about the atmosphere.

The goal is to start launching microsatellites into orbit by 2022. Those microsatellites could monitor the health of crops, track global commodity supplies, and advance scientific exploration.

Microsatellites typically don’t stay in orbit as long as larger satellites, averaging one to five years. That means the possibility of return business, Hepfer said.

“We could have customers coming back every five years,” he said, “So it also motivates microsatellite companies to look for launch vehicles that will give them the highest value.”

Hepfer said the December launch, which did not include deploying a satellite, provided Leo Aerospace with valuable data.

“We got some great information about what happens to the balloon craft when the rocket is launching because it shakes, vibrates, and twists,” he explains. “So next time we launch a bigger rocket we know what changes need to be made beforehand. Every time we do this, we learn how to make it better for the next one.

“The big challenge was figuring out how to attach a rocket to a high-altitude balloon, and then launching that rocket remotely,” Hepfer adds. “A big part of that was automating a lot of the subsystems because the balloon is out of sight when the rocket is launched.”

With the test launch completed, the startup founders are now planning to move on to their next phase, which involves raising $8 million to fund the company for the next two years. They also are looking to add personnel, including a vice president for business development and vice president of engineering. They are looking for people experienced in the aerospace industry who can bring valuable aerospace know-how.

The team spent two months in Australia last summer taking part in the Startmate and Moonshot accelerator programs and plans to conduct at least some of its launches there. Leo Aerospace’s long-term business plan includes doing a number of launches from Australia, Hepfer says, because regulations and air traffic lets companies fly more frequently.

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