Firm launched by Purdue students aims to go where no man has gone before

Five 20-something year old entrepreneurs affiliated with Purdue University are pioneering technology involving rockets, satellites and hot air balloons that has gained far-reaching interest from an eclectic set of potential clients ranging from New Zealand sheep herders to oceanic pirate hunters.

Leo Aerospace LLC has developed technology that will allow microsatellites as small as a loaf of bread and weighing about 10 pounds to be launched into orbit aboard a rocket—known as rockoon—launched from a high-altitude balloon.

If the start-up manages to pull it off, it will be the first time a satellite has been sent into orbit strapped aboard a rocket from a high-altitude balloon.

“We’ve been called crazy once or twice, but that’s sort of the fun of it,” said Leo Aerospace CEO Dane Rudy.

Drew Sherman, Leo Aerospace’s head of vehicle development, explained the company is working on a safety and stabilization system—involving software and hardware—that will allow microsatellites to be launched cheaper and with more precision than current methods. The system being developed by the firm will also allow the units to gather data and to have at least parts of the propulsion system be recovered and re-used.

Officials of Leo Aerospace, which took its name from Low Earth Orbit, say the company will revolutionize the space industry by giving priority service to microsatellite developers that now are secondary payloads for large rocket companies. 

Currently, developers have to wait to see if there is room left on large rockets carrying government payloads and often have to wait six months or more to find space on a rocket, a delay that can be costly. Those microsatellite developers also have limited options on which orbit their satellites are delivered to and when they are launched, Sherman explained.

“We’re targeting the microsatellites by saying, ‘You don’t have to ride-share with anyone. We can guarantee you will be our only payload and we will be focused on you,’” Sherman said. “‘We will work with you exclusively to get you into orbit. You won’t have to worry about other payloads or getting dropped off in the wrong spot.’”

Abishek Murali, head of mission engineering, said a selling point for Leo Aerospace will be its flexibility and ability to meet customers’ needs. The company will be able to tailor its launch vehicles and its operational capabilities to the exact needs of its clients, he explained.

“Our goal is to give people access to space. The only way to do that right now is to help people get their satellite into orbit. That's where we want to leave our mark,” he said.

Leo Aerospace, which was founded in October 2017, has raised $141,000 in seed money so far, and hopes to have a total of $200,000 to $250,000 raised by this summer when the company’s five employees—two Purdue graduates, two attending graduate school and one pursuing an undergraduate degree at Purdue—advance the technical development of its system.

The company plans to seek Series A funding in the next two years.

If all goes well, Leo Aerospace could be launching more than 50 satellites annually by 2022, Sherman said. 

Sherman told IBJ that he is confident Leo’s technology has many applications and potential users. Leo Aerospace was awarded a $50,000 grant to conduct “customer discovery,” Sherman said.

“There are a lot of people and companies that want satellites for imaging purposes or to do research on things like oxygen or ozone levels,” said Sherman, a 23-year-old who has an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering and who is pursuing a master’s degree at Purdue in engineering management with an emphasis on propulsion. “We’ve heard from sheep herders in New Zealand who use satellites to track their herds. Ships can be tracked with this technology, and we’ve heard from groups who want to use it to fight piracy" on the ocean.

Sherman also said that if a company puts up multiple satellite, information can be beamed from satellite to satellite without having to be transmitted back and forth to earth.

While Sherman is confident his firm will offer competitive pricing, that doesn’t mean it will be cheap. He said it would likely cost a Leo Aerospace client between $50,000 and $350,000 (plus service charges) to put a single satellite in space, depending on the weight of the satellite. 

Some companies now charge $500,000 or more to launch a satellite.

The rockoon, Sherman explained, is less expensive to deploy than a traditional rocket becasue the rocket isn’t launched until the balloon is 11 miles above Earth, where there is 95 percent less atmosphere to cause drag. A specialized stabilization system, however, is needed because the rocket is launched from an unstable platform. 

To see a video of the Leo Aerospace crew working on and explaining their system, click here

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