All at once
Recently, US developers have made at least several significant steps in the development of the rocket and space industry. In November, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket flew for the first time using the same first stage for the seventh time. In the same month, the private company Rocket Lab was able to return the first stage of its small Electron rocket to Earth for the first time. So far, in experimental form: the rocket landed in the water using a parachute system. In the standard version, it is supposed to be caught in the air using a helicopter.
On July 20, Astra Space made the first launch of its "super-cheap" launch vehicle with the uncomplicated name Rocket, capable of placing up to 500 kilograms of payload into a 150-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit with an estimated launch price of about $ 2,5 million (which is several times cheaper than the same Electron / Electron). The rocket made its second launch on November 29. And although both launches were de facto unsuccessful, this is a serious claim for success.
It is noteworthy that with such competition, other developers do not sit idly by. The best proof of this is the sudden presentation of an unmanned spacecraft. Ravn X from the small company Aevum of Huntsville, Alabama. The presented sample, as far as we can tell, is a mock-up.
As for Aevum itself, it was founded in 2016. Until recently, they tried not to advertise the development of the device. However, both the general concept and some technical details of the promising model have now become known.
The Ravn X is a reusable drone that will carry an outboard rocket, which in turn is supposed to launch a small payload into a low reference orbit. The twin-engine UAV, the first stage of the system, weighs 55 pounds (000 tons), is 25 feet (80 meters) long and has a wingspan of 24 feet (60 meters). That is, it is roughly comparable in size to the American A-18 Vigilante carrier-based bomber. As The Drive rightly notes in its material "Aevum's Space Launch Plane Is A-5 Vigilante Sized, Its Claims Are Even Bigger", visually the device is similar to the concept of the unmanned slave Loyal Wingman, which is now being developed by Boeing. And which has recently started running on the runway (the first flight may take place before the end of this year).
The rocket, which the drone is supposed to carry, will be two-stage: according to the data presented, the system will be able to put loads weighing up to 500 kg into low reference orbit (LEO). That is, it can be classified as a light launch vehicle. It also includes, for example, the Russian Rokot, which is capable of transporting cargo weighing more than two tons to LEO. Note also that the Soyuz-2 belongs to the middle class, and the above-mentioned Falcon 9 - to the heavy one.
De facto, the concept proposed by Aevum involves the creation of a three-stage system, where the UAV itself (as the first stage) will be, as well as a rocket suspended under it, which has two stages. The Ravn X will take off and land just like a regular plane, using the runway. They want to launch the rocket at an altitude of about 9-18 thousand meters.
Attempt number X
At first glance, such a system (being rather complicated and expensive) will not be able to compete with reusable rockets or cheap disposable light / ultralight launch vehicles. However, as far as can be judged, this is not required.
The advantages of the system lie in a different plane. Preparing for a launch vehicle is a long and complex undertaking, depending on a variety of factors, including weather conditions at the launch site. Therefore, the Pentagon has long wanted to get a carrier that could launch a payload into space, no matter what. One such solution could be the brainchild of Aevum.
"With our autonomous technologies, Aevum will reduce lead times from years to months, and when our customers demand minutes,"
- the company says. According to the concept, with the help of Ravn X it is possible to provide space launches of small satellites every 3 hours.
Aevum works closely with the US Department of Defense. Moreover, it is known that the first mission that they want to carry out within the framework of this cooperation will be called ASLON-45: it will be carried out in the interests of the US Space Force.
The device should make its first flight very soon - in 2021. Then he must perform the first launch with a payload that will be used for military purposes.
The announced timeline seems overly ambitious, especially considering how complex the scheme the developers have chosen. Apparently, in this way Aevum wants to attract the attention of customers and (in the future) expects to get a part of the market for rocket and space services. However, in the current situation (which we partially mentioned above), this seems to be an almost impossible task.
But in the military sphere, the Ravn X has, to put it mildly, few competitors. Previously, the Pentagon has repeatedly tried to get a cheap and unpretentious means of launching payloads into orbit, but these attempts de facto ended in nothing. Back in 2013, DARPA announced the XS-1 program, the goal of which is to provide an inexpensive, reusable tool for the frequent and quick launch of small vehicles into orbit. In January 2020, Boeing abruptly pulled out of the Phantom Express reusable spaceplane development program.
"Following a detailed review, Boeing is ending its Experimental Spaceplane (XSP) program immediately," said spokesman Jerry Drelling. "We will now redirect our investments from XSP to other Boeing programs that span the maritime, air and space sectors."
It is also worth mentioning that earlier the US Department of Defense (DARPA) launched the ALASA program: the F-15 Eagle fighter was supposed to act as a launch platform. It was supposed to launch a rocket that would launch small spacecraft into orbit. Unsuccessful tests led to the fact that the program was curtailed in 2015.
At the same time, the United States is not abandoning the Boeing X-37 experimental orbital aircraft: the last launch of the device was performed in May 2020 using the Atlas-5 launch vehicle.
Despite a number of official statements that relate to the goals and objectives of the spacecraft, the final purpose of the program remains unknown. Perhaps the Aevum project will answer some of the questions related to the "most secret spacecraft."