SpaceX launched its ninth “Transporter” mission on Saturday from California, carrying dozens of small and medium-sized satellites into low Earth orbit.
The upside of these launches for customers is that they can count on regular, low-cost access to space aboard the reliable Falcon 9 rocket. The downside is that all satellites are launched into base orbit, and if they want to reach a different altitude or inclination, they must bring their own propulsion system along for the ride.
This has led to the emergence of “last mile” services from various companies offering small additional spacecraft capable of providing propulsion in space. One of the most interesting of these is Impulse Space, a company founded two years ago by rocket scientist Tom Mueller, who was a founding employee at SpaceX before leaving in 2020.
During Saturday’s launch, Mueller’s career came full circle when a Falcon 9 rocket launched Impulse Space’s first vehicle, the Mira spacecraft, on a test flight. After launch, the Mira mission “LEO Express 1” phoned home and told us everything was going well. So, the mission is off to a promising start.
Anywhere in the solar system
For Mueller, running Impulse Space is a new experience after his time at SpaceX. There, he led the development of the Merlin engines that power the Falcon 9 rocket and oversaw all rocket and spacecraft propulsion elements. As vice president and then consultant, he was able to focus mostly on the technical rather than the business aspects.
“At SpaceX, I definitely wasn’t involved in the fundraising and the business side and running an entire company,” he told Ars in an interview earlier this year. “There’s been a lot to learn. But I think I’m getting better at it. Certainly, technically, I feel like we’re very strong. We have a really cool spacecraft.”
Fully fueled, the Mira spacecraft weighs about 650 pounds (300 kg) and is the size of a dishwasher. The vehicle is designed to maximize its Delta-V capability, so it is mostly fuel-tank powered, and is powered by Saiph propulsion engines that operate at an specific impulse (ISP) of 290. “It’s a very nice little machine,” Mueller said. He said.
While SpaceX has expanded the ability of space startups to reach orbit at a lower cost and launch reliably, Mueller said Impulse plans to take customers to the next step.
“SpaceX opened up access to orbit by lowering the cost of getting into space, and now we want to open up access to more orbits, higher energy orbits, and go to other objects in the inner solar system,” Mueller said. “We want to make it cheap and easy to get anywhere in the solar system.”
Mars is on the horizon
Impulse Space has already announced some customers for Mira, e.g Orbit FabIt plans to launch the Mira spacecraft on SpaceX’s Transporter-11 and -12 missions next year. Mueller believes that when Mira proves its mettle, many more customers will sign on.
“We’ve signed a few customers,” he said. “We’ve got a whole bunch of people interested, but they want to see us fly successfully, which, you know, I can’t blame them. I think, ‘Really, the floodgates will open on this production line once we fly successfully.’ . “If we go out and show all the things we want to do on this first trip, hopefully there will be a lot of people who sign up.”
The company’s Mira vehicle can serve low Earth orbit, and a modified, radiation-hardened version is scheduled for use in geostationary orbit. Impulse Space is also developing a more powerful thruster, Rigel, for the Mars lander and a larger orbiter. A robotic mission to Mars will not launch before 2026 aboard a Terran R rocket built by Relativity Space.
Despite the difficult fundraising environment, Impulse Space has continued to receive financial support. In July, the company announced it had raised $45 million in Series A funding, led by RTX Ventures. A year ago, Impulse said it had raised $30 million. So Mueller may have started fundraising and running his own company.
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