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Aevum’s RAVN-X is a drone system that carries satellites high in the atmosphere, where a rocket takes over.

Aevum

Rocket-launching drone ready to take satellites into orbit

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s the RAVN-X—a rocket-launching drone designed to send small satellites to orbit without a pilot or a launchpad. Aerospace startup Aevum unveiled the first flight-ready model today, in advance of the system’s first mission: a 2021 launch for the U.S. Space Force, to take place after flight testing.

The company has already inked about $1 billion in military contracts, but Jay Skylus, founder and CEO, believes the RAVN-X system will be useful for remote-sensing scientists interested in launching small satellites quickly into custom orbits. The idea it could help scientists is, he says, “one of the key reasons I wake up in the morning.”

RAVN-X is about as long as two school buses and looks like it was born of a marriage between a bird and a missile. The drone takes off from a regular runway, climbs high in the atmosphere, and releases a small rocket attached to its body. The rocket continues spaceward and spits out satellites weighing between 100 and 500 kilograms. The system is autonomous and requires none of the costly infrastructure that comes with a launchpad.

Those features caught the attention of the Space Force, which contracted Aevum to carry its ASLON-45 mission—a set of small satellites that will, according to the agency, improve “real-time threat warnings.” ASLON-45 is the military branch’s first small satellite mission, set to launch from Cecil Spaceport in Jacksonville, Florida. “Having a robust U.S. industry providing responsive launch capability is key to ensuring the U.S. Space Force can respond to future threats,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Rose, chief of the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Small Launch and Targets Division, in a video recorded for today’s digital unveiling.

RAVN-X is not the first air-launched rocket catering to the “smallsat” market. Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus system has flown dozens of times since the 1990s. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne failed in its first launch attempt earlier this year, will try again later this month with an attempt to launch 10 NASA-funded “CubeSats”—small satellites that typically weigh less than 10 kilograms each. But both Pegasus and LauncherOne use traditional, piloted jets, whereas Aevum’s driverless drone is unique, says Phil Smith, a senior analyst at Bryce Space and Technology, a consulting firm. Still, Smith says, RAVN-X is flying into a crowded market, with more than 100 small launch vehicles in development. “There’s a plethora of systems out there,” he says. “There isn’t room for more than perhaps three to five or so.”

Much will hinge on Aevum’s ability to drive down costs by reusing its planned fleet of drone systems. (The attached rockets burn up in the atmosphere after delivering their payload.) Aevum says they’re aiming for costs of a few thousand dollars per kilogram—similar to the cost of a ride on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. But with RAVN-X, researchers would have more control over the launch schedule and the precise orbit they want. Those sorts of bespoke privileges now cost more than $20,000 per kilogram on a Rocket Lab Electron, a small ground-launched rocket. One big difference, though: Rocket Lab has now launched more than a dozen times, whereas RAVN-X has not flown at all.

Today’s unveiling is a leap toward that first ride. And Smith sees the company’s military contracts as an endorsement of the system’s bright future. “That’s, in a sense, a seal of approval,” he says.