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Students Form Microsatellite Rocket Launch Company

Leo Aerospace technology

Leo Aerospace technology (Leo Aerospace LLC)

5 April 2018. Current and former Purdue University engineering students transformed their interest in rocketry into a new enterprise for launching small lower-cost satellites into low-earth orbit from high-altitude balloons. The company, Leo Aerospace LLC in Marina Del Ray, California started up in October 2017, and is raising seed capital for its first launch planned for 2020.

Leo Aerospace — the name Leo is an abbreviation for low-earth orbit — designs its services for the launch of microsatellites, small-scale satellites about the size of home microwave ovens, that make use of advances in miniaturization to create payloads in more compact and lighter packages. Despite these advances, says the company, most today’s commercial launch services still favor larger payloads, leaving microsatellites to compete for limited remaining space, and often delays of 6 months or more waiting for the next launch.

Leo Aerospace, on the other hand, plans to launch only microsatellites. The company says microsatellites are now being used for functions such as monitoring crop progress, tracking movements of oil and other commodities, watching for illegal fishing activity, and sending biomedical experiments into microgravity conditions. By 2026, the company anticipates launches as often as 50 times a year.

While the business opportunity looks promising, the company needs to overcome some basic technological obstacles. A major challenge is designing an inexpensive launch vehicle that allows for Leo Aerospace to charge low rates for microsatellites. The company’s solution is adapting a technology tried by rocket pioneers in the 1950s: launching smaller rockets from high-altitude balloons, or what the company calls “rockoons.”

Leo Aerospace says its calculations indicate launches of smaller and less expensive rockets, with payloads of up to 25 kilograms (55 pounds) are feasible, when lifted by balloons to an altitude of 18 kilometers (11.1 miles). The rockets could then be smaller and less powerful, similar to sounding rockets used by NASA for sub-orbital scientific payloads. From that altitude, says the company, these rockets would encounter 95 percent less atmosphere, thus less drag, with the precise pitch and angle of launch carefully controlled. Balloons would be recovered and reused, but not the rockets.

The 5 founders were part of a student club at Purdue that they formed into Leo Aerospace. The company’s formation was helped along at Purdue Foundry that offers resources for campus entrepreneurs, with some of the founders also taking part in a National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, training program. Leo Aerospace is now raising seed capital through the investment crowdfunding site NetCapital, so far collecting $130,000 of its $250,000 goal.

Company CEO Dane Rudy and other founders tell more about Leo Aerospace in the following video.

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