[FoRK] The 8k Personal Satellite (and Other Space Adventures)

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Fri Sep 25 02:51:58 PDT 2009


The 8k Personal Satellite (and Other Space Adventures)

Created 09/17/2009 - 09:08

View from outer space

InterOrbital Systems (IOS) is -- in the words of their website -- a "rocket
and spacecraft manufacturing company" that locates itself at the Mojave
Airport and Spaceport in Mojave, California. They recently announced that
they were offering to send people's personal satellites into low-earth orbit
on a NEPTUNE 30 rocket for the low low low cost of $8,000.

So far, IOS has signed up Bob Twiggs, inventor of the breakthrough small
satellite, CubeSat (TubeSat’s larger cubic cousin) as a core component in his
Kentucky Space/Morehead State University Space Science curriculum, among

I spoke with Randa Milliron, CEO of Interorbital Systems via email.

h+: Let's start with the basic question: What are you guys doing?

RANDA MILLIRON: We're building a low-cost transportation system from Earth to
Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond, principally with the Moon as the next
logical destination. Let me stress that this is actually a low-cost system --
our rocket is not a rehash of a Delta or a kluge of leftover military missile
hardware that the manufacturers say will be cheaper just because they want it
to be. In reality, the other rockets are still the same intricate and
expensive launchers that -- by their very complex nature -- will never be
able to meet our price. We are building an entirely new launch vehicle -- one
that is the result of a philosophy of radical systems simplification. One
that really is low-cost.

The NEPTUNE 30 is an evolved version of the OTRAG (Lutz Kayser, Wernher von
Braun, Kurt Debus) launch vehicle design that showed so much promise in the
late 1970s. We have a program based on their original work. Our NEPTUNE 30
rocket has been created to carry on their very sound design philosophy and
tradition. The launcher is updated and modernized in terms of electronics and
computer systems, but the basic tank cluster configuration and the use of
storable propellants harks back to Lutz Kayser’s original work. We are lucky
enough and honored to have Lutz on the Interorbital team.

Neptune 30. Photo credit: interorbital.comInterorbital Systems is the
definition of vertical integration. We manufacture our own rocket engines, so
we’re not dependent on or held hostage by an outside source for the primary
propulsion components of our launch vehicles. We manufacture all guidance,
software, tankage and other systems in-house. We not only build, but we
launch our own rockets. And we build the satellites. I’d say we’re pretty
self-contained and totally independent.

Not only was our rocket fashioned along these lines, but our satellite, the
TubeSat, was also designed following the same Minimum Cost Design principles:
use COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf) products whenever possible; no exotic
materials or propellants; use standard industrial manufacturing methods;
employ a design policy of system simplification rather than one of increased
complexity; no outsourcing of complex expensive hardware. We use no turbo
pumps, no ignition system, no complex pressurant systems -- this is the
sparest and leanest vehicle in the world. Its time has come and it’s a

h+: OK, but what I'm really getting at here is that you are offering a
"TubeSat PERSONAL SATELLITE KIT" for $8,000. Describe exactly what happens if
someone buys a kit. And do they go into their backyards and send a satellite
into space, like I, and my friends, used to do with small, homemade hot air
floating contraptions powered by candles? Or do you send them up for them?

TubeSat Personal Satellite Kit. Photo credit: interorbital.comRM: The
scenario goes like this: the builder pays IOS $8000 for the kit/launch combo,
builds the kit, sends IOS the completed satellite for testing, inspection,
and integration into the NEPTUNE 30 rocket. It is then launched. Lift off is
not via your very colorful description of candles or hot air, but with four
pillars of fire generating 40,000 pounds of thrust. It launches into a
circular 310km polar low-earth-orbit (LEO) from the South Pacific Kingdom of

When a person buys a kit, ideally he or she has an experiment, task,
performance, or other use in mind for the satellite. It’s really for people
with a good set of electronics and programming skills, or for those who want
to learn and prove their skills in the field. It can be used as a team
building exercise or a solitary triumph. It’s the ultimate educational tool
that allows the user to do real space-based orbital science at what are
(comparatively) dollar store prices. Somehow, the bragging rights of being
able to say, “I just sent my first satellite to space and it said hello to
me!” are a far better return on investment than most other purchase options.

h+: I've seen some skepticism expressed on Slashdot and elsewhere about
"sending 8k to some address in the desert."

RM: In Mojave, the winds frequently blow through town at 70 or 80 miles per
hour. Nearly everyone uses a post office box to stop the mail from simply
blowing away. And where else could you run a rocket R&D program but the

H+ But aren't you offering to do something that you haven't proved you can do

RM: Most of the really hard work has already been done, and it only took 14
years! We’ve built the program on a solid foundation of incremental
engineering successes in the areas of hot-firing the rocket engines, testing
guidance systems and software, and launching sounding rockets to flight-test
our hardware and propellants. The radical simplification of systems at play
in the NEPTUNE 30 rocket make it possible for IOS to launch a 32-satellite
payload for around $250,000 and still make a reasonable profit. The $8,000
price point is, in fact, a confidence builder. We realize that people do not
want to risk a $250,000 satellite on an unproven vehicle but $8,000 is a risk
most experimenters are willing to take. People must take the leap -- take the
chance. Where the hell in the world will they ever have a chance to send an
experiment to space -- and that’s real space -- for a price as absurdly low
as $8,000? The public has embraced our quest to lower the cost of access to
orbit, and the orders are rolling in.

People must take the leap. Where will they have a chance to send an
experiment to space for a price as absurdly low as $8,000?

In terms of safeguarding people’s investments, the launch vehicle is being
thoroughly tested before attempting to loft anything into orbit.
Additionally, we’re running three Common Propulsion Module low-altitude
flight tests and an all-up Neptune 30 flight to 50,000 feet before we launch
anyone’s precious satellite. There is always risk in spaceflight, but that’s
part of the allure. We mitigate that risk through constant testing. By the
way, payload space is available on these test flights at $500/kg.

h+: Do you have an estimated initial launch date?

RM: We have four pre-orbital test launches scheduled before the first NEPTUNE
30 orbital launch. We’re beginning the low-altitude flights locally in
January. There are a few ground tests remaining, followed by three flight
tests of the CPM (Common Propulsion Module) and a fourth test of the all-up
vehicle, but with a dummy core and satellite module stage. These are
low-altitude flights to 15.25 km. Some of the payload space on these
pre-orbital test flights has already been sold. The first orbital (circling
the planet) launch with a full component of satellites is scheduled to occur
in December of 2010. The actual date will depend upon the results of these
initial flight tests.

h+: Tell us about the Synergy Moon project and the new X Prize competition.
Also, you guys were slated to participate in the original X Prize
competition, to cross the generally recognized boundary into "outer" space. I
know you didn't win, but how did it go?

RM: As far as the original X Prize goes, Rutan was fully funded. Due to our
limited resources, we were not able to proceed at the same pace as his group,
Scaled Composites. We had a winning design, but our funding restrictions
slowed our pace. Securing solid cash flow continues to be the main problem
with all commercial space companies.

For the upcoming competition, our Google Lunar X Prize team Synergy Moon is a
group of roughly 50 people from 15 countries. Most are
artists/scientists/engineers. Two teams, The Human Synergy Project and
InterPlanetary Ventures, joined forces and became one team. They asked
Interorbital Systems to be their launch provider. We accepted the invitation
and have begun work on the test series for the lunar mission with the NEPTUNE
30. So our small sat launcher is a testbed for the larger follow-on vehicles
in the NEPTUNE modular series. Our GLXP Moon rocket, the 33-engine NEPTUNE
1000, can lift 1000kg to LEO, or 50kg to the Moon.

h+: What's up with the Lunar Samples you have on sale? Do you think this sort
of speculative offer might turn some people off?

RM: Not at all! Why should it? We want to make it clear that to send a rocket
to the Moon is not as difficult as both the industry and the nontechnical
public would have you believe. It’s Gerard O’Neill’s concept that once you’re
in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), you really are halfway to anywhere in the Solar
System. Actually, the most difficult part is getting to LEO and doing it
cheaply. In terms of the lunar samples, this type of pre-sale gives the
customer a sizable discount for the lunar samples we’ll bring back on the
second lunar mission (the Google Lunar X PRIZE is the first, scheduled for
Late 2012). These sales fund our lunar programs, both the GLXP and the
subsequent mining missions. Interorbital’s ‘speculative’ offer has been
embraced by members of the public who have expressed their high confidence in
our ability to carry out the task by buying-in to the program -- particularly
those who wish to give a gift that no one else on Earth will be able to give.

h+: Speaking of Gerard O'Neill, when can humans expect those space resources
and space colonies we were sold on during the 1970s?

RM: We have a lunar mining program in the works (thus the lunar samples.)
It’s inevitable… untapped riches... and it will be possible within the span
of a few years.

We can’t predict the exact date for space colonies because there are too many
variables. What I can say is this: no specific date, but it’s in the very
near future. If you want more information on our own colony program -- called
Trans Lunar Research, we have a website. (See Resources)

More information about the FoRK mailing list