The RAVN-X is a new Autonomous Aircraft Designed to Launch Small Satellites

In the past twenty years, one of the biggest developments to take place in the realm of space exploration has been the growth of the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace). As a result of growing demand and declining costs, more companies are coming to the fore to offer launch services that are making space more accessible and cost-effective.

One such company is the space delivery services company Aevum, an Alabama-based startup specializing in Autonomous Launch Vehicles (AuLVs). On Dec. 3rd, 2020, Aevum unveiled their prototype vehicle, the RAVN-X. Once operational, this autonomous suborbital spaceplane will be able to send satellites and other small payloads to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in just three hours.

The term Aevum (derived from the Latin word for “age”) comes from the Scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages. Basically, it refers to the state of existence experienced by the angles, between the temporal realm (where the mortals live) and eternity (God in heaven). In the context of aerospace, it refers to LEO, the region that lies between Earth and outer space.
Aveum’s Ravn concept deploying its satellite-launching rocket. Credit: Aveum

The RAVN-X is their first autonomous delivery system, a jet aircraft that measures about two dozen meters long (close to 80 ft) and takes off from a regular runway. Like other air-launch concepts, the RAVN-X launches satellites using a small rocket attached to its fuselage and is capable of delivering payloads between 100 and 500 kg (lbs) in mass (which makes it ideal for launching small satellites).

But most importantly, the system is autonomous and can send satellites to LEO without the need for a launch pad and all the expensive infrastructure that comes with it. The story of Aevum began in 2005 when founder and CEO Jay Skylus began looking into the logistical barriers that prevent communications satellites from being deployed.

Skylus was particularly motivated to tackle this problem because of the way communications in Afghanistan has always been an issue. Having a brother who serves in the US armed forces, he was troubled by how communication issues often lead to the loss of life. This problem also affects remote and/or underdeveloped parts of the world where the infrastructure for internet and telecommunications simply doesn’t exist.

In time, Skylus was convinced that democratizing access to space could bridge the technology gap between the developed and developing world, allow previously unheard voices to be heard, and save many lives in the process. By 2016, Skylus and his colleagues founded Aevum, secured corporate sponsorships, and completed their first round of fundraising.

In 2017, the prototyping process for the Ravn concept began and led to several iterations. Development also began on all the necessary software and components. To date, the company has received military contracts worth $1 billion, but the long-term goal is to facilitate remote-sensing, scientific research, and communications.

For their first mission, which is scheduled for 2021, the company will be executing a $4.6 million contract for the US Space Force (USSF). This will consist of the RAVN-X taking off from Cecil Spaceport in Jacksonville, Florida, and launching the Agile Small Launch Operational Normalizer-45 (ASLON-45) – a small satellite that is intended to improve real-time threat warnings for the US Air Force (USAF) and USSF.

RAVN-X is now one of several air-launched rocket systems that has emerged in response to the “smallsat” market. Other examples include Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne, a rocket that is deployed from a company passenger jet. For its next flight test, Virgin Orbit will launch a rideshare mission (ELaNa-20), where 14 CubeSats would be deployed as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites initiative – currently, the launch date is TBD.

And there there’s Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus system, a rocket that launches from a Stargazer L-1011 passenger liner and is able to deliver payloads of up to 450 kg (1,000 lbs) to LEO. This system has been in operation since 1990 and, like the LauncherOne system, relies on piloted vehicles to make air-launches. This means that Aevum currently stands alone, being the only system that is automated.
A drop test of a LauncherOne in July of 2019. Credit: Virgin Orbit

But as senior analyst Phil Smith of Bryce Space and Technology (an analytics and engineering consulting firm) said, RAVN-X is still part of an increasingly-crowded market – with over 100 smallsat launch vehicles in development. “There’s a plethora of systems out there,” he said. “There isn’t room for more than perhaps three to five or so.”

As such, Aevum and its RAVN-X will have their work cut out for them, and success will depend upon their ability to cut costs by ensuring their drones are reusable. While the rocket boosters are expendable and burn-up in the atmosphere, the RAVN-X aircraft was designed with reuse in mind. Skylus has indicated that the goal for his company is to get costs down to a few thousand dollars per kilo.

This is comparable to what SpaceX has achieved with the Falcon 9 rocket, which can launch payloads to LEO for about $2,720 per kg (with new booster) or $2,200 (with a reused booster). Meanwhile, the Falcon Heavy can send payloads to LEO for $1,410, provided all three boosters are retrieved and reused. The RAVN-X also allows for a greater degree of launch flexibility and more precise control over orbits.

Companies like Rocket Lab are able to provide these benefits using their Electron rockets, but at a cost of $20,000 per kg. Luckily, the company has developed a mid-air recovery process to retrieve its spent first stage boosters and reuse them. Bottom line, the growth of the small satellite market and the proliferation of cost-effective launch services ensures that LEO is going to be a very lucrative (and crowded) place in the coming years!

Be sure to check out this video of the RAVN-X’s unveiling, courtesy of Aevum:

Further Reading: Sciencemag