Successful Launch of Rocket From High-Altitude Balloon Makes Space More Accessible to Microsatellites

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March 12, 2019 | Originally published by Date Line: March 12 on

A startup that plans to use high-altitude balloons to deploy rockets has successfully fired a test launch, moving closer to its goal of helping end the backlog of microsatellites that wait months or longer to “hitch” a ride on larger rockets.

Leo Aerospace LLC, a Purdue University-affiliated startup based in Los Angeles, launched its first “rockoon,” a high-power rocket from a reusable balloon platform, from the Mojave Desert in southern California in December.

“It was thrilling to see that first launch after all those months of hard work and planning,” said 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 will work.”

Leo Aerospace aims to revolutionize access to space for those looking to launch small satellites about the size of toasters, weighing up to 25 kilograms, or about 110 pounds. It plans to be a “dedicated” launch 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,” said 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 more to large satellite companies, leaving microsatellite companies to wait to see if there is any leftover space available, and the microsatellite operators must 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 into place after already waiting for months to be deployed.

“It”s like taking a bus compared to taking an Uber,” Hepfer said. “With us, you”re our only customer, so we”ll take you wherever you want to be.”

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