Many changes are currently taking place at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida to cater to the evolving space industry and America’s future launch needs. One of these areas in which KSC is catering to is the small satellite industry, which has significantly grown in the past few years. With an increase in small satellite production and a lack of appropriate facilities to launch them, KSC made a new launch complex available for Small Class Vehicles and their payloads.
A ribbon cutting ceremony was held Friday, July 17, to mark the completion of a new launch pad designed to accommodate Small Class Vehicles. The new pad, Launch Complex (LC) -39C, is expected to be ready by late-2016 to early-2017. The launch pad opens up new possibilities for the transforming launch complex by inviting venture-class and smaller aerospace companies to use their facilities.
“As Americas premiere spaceport, we’re always looking for new and innovative ways to meet America’s launch needs and one area that was missing was small class payloads. So, using 21st Century funds, we built pad 39C,” explained Bob Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center at the ribbon cutting ceremony on Friday morning.
The new small launch complex is situated on the southeast side of Launch Complex 39B (LC-39B), the pad that launched space shuttles and will eventually launch the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) deep space rocket in 2017. The small concrete launch pad is about 50 feet wide and roughly 100 feet long. It cost NASA approximately $900,000 to build. Aerospace companies in the small class rocket market will find the new multi-purpose launch complex to be a convenient and affordable facility to test and launch their vehicles. Additionally, LC-39C will enable the smaller companies, ventures, and start-ups to enter the commercial spaceflight market.
“Pad 39C is the latest addition to our portfolio,” began Scott Colloredo, director of Center Planning and Development Directorate at KSC. “The small class market is here. It is essentially a new market.”
Colloredo said the Small Class Vehicle market is a new technology that, like the cell-phone, has majorly evolved. The bulky hand-held device that used to be larger than a brick has transformed into a lightweight, touchscreen technology that easily fits into your back pocket. Like the evolution of the cell phone, the Small Class Vehicle and payload market has undergone something similar. Small satellites, such as CubeSats, are becoming more and more popular and the demand for a launch facility for small class launch vehicles is going up. There are currently 10 to 12 companies that have toured and are interested in utilizing the new site to launch their small rockets.
“This is what a commercial launch site for a small class launcher needs to look like. It’s lean, it’s mean, it’s clean. The commercial company can do what they need to do. Set up their ground support equipment to launch their vehicle. We feel real good about the fact that its something that they can use and we don’t really have to provide a whole lot of heavy-duty infrastructure. This was a really cheap way of doing that and we think it’s going to accommodate a healthy number of vehicles. We don’t assume there’s going to be ten to twelve [companies] actually using it, but that interest being so high tells us that it’s worth doing something like this.”
As explained in a previous AmericaSpace article, the mobile system is called the Deployable Launch System, or DLS, and described as a “Launch pad in a box.” The supporting ground equipment includes a propellant servicing system, flame deflector, launch mount, and other necessary components. The project was managed by NASA’s Ground System Development and Operations (GDSO) program.
The new launch complex offers many versatile options for customers including multiple ways to process and integrate small class launch vehicles before launch. The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) is available for those who want to vertically stack the rocket and roll it out to the pad. Those who choose to roll out their rocket horizontally and rotate it vertically at the launch site can find that the infrastructure supports that, too.
Processing and launching features at LC-39C include:
- Processing facilities (VAB)
- Launch site
- Vehicle/payload transportation (trucks, tugs, etc.) from integration facility to the pad
- Universal propellant servicing system (liquid oxygen, liquid methane)
- Launch control center/mobile command center options
GDSO developed a universal propellant servicing system equipped with liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid methane (LCH4). This system is expected to be operational by summer 2016. The universal propellant servicing system will be adaptable to other propellants like kerosene, liquid hydrogen (LH2), and many others.
The limits of the small class vehicle depend on the size of the rocket. NASA expects the rockets to be within 80 to 100 feet tall, with a thrust no greater than 200,000 lbs. The types of missions that will be flown from LC-39C will be CubeSats, university research experiments, and small venture-class payloads. Companies are migrating toward smaller constellations of small satellites rather than one large satellite having to take flight as a secondary payload. Companies can utilize the convenience of LC-39C, fly their small satellites as a primary payload, and launch on own schedule.
In addition to the completion of the new LC-39C, Colloredo made another exciting announcement regarding two new launch sites. A new launch complex south of LC-39A called “48” has been zoned off to be made available to future commercial users. Another launch site, called “49,” is north of LC-39B and will also be made available to commercial customers. This is yet another forward thinking move in KSC’s transformation from a federal spaceport to a commercial-friendly multiuser spaceport.
“It is a good time to be optimistic,” remarked Colloredo. “As I said, we think we are doing some great things here and we’ve accomplished a lot, but we’re not done. There is still a lot that we want to do.”
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It sure would be nice to eventually see Rocket Lab’s Electron Launcher lifting off from LC-39C!
The Electron Launcher is expected to lift off with about 34,500 lbs of thrust and be capable of launching 100 kg to a 500 km high orbit.
I wonder if an Angara 5 type of first stage design using clusters of the Electron’s first stage would someday make economical sense if Rocket Lab wanted the capability to send satellites far beyond LEO.
LC-39C should offer lots of interesting possibilities for launch vehicles with less than 200,000 lbs of thrust at lift-off.
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