NASA engineer Jerry Budd has an idea so audacious that it might just work—he wants to use unmanned, autonomous gliders to send small, low-cost satellites into orbit.
The Towed Glider Air-Launch is an experimental project (still awaiting government approval) that would fire air-launching rocket boosters from a drone glider. In Budd's modest words, the proposal offers "affordable, flexible access to space." A glider would be towed into high altitudes by military transport aircraft on planned flights and would be released by the plane—the glider would then fire a rocket booster (with a satellite enclosed) into orbit. Afterward, pilots located in remote NASA facilities safely guide the glider home.
The space gliders would be used to launch cubesats into orbit. Cubesats are small, low-cost satellites that weigh under 200 pounds and can be built and sent into orbit for low cost. Right now, it costs about $50,000 to build a cubesat and $100,000 to put one in orbit. Budd's proposal would sharply reduce the cost of sending cubesats into space by allowing specialized drones to handle much of the hard work. Instead of sending cubesats into orbit on Russian rockets, NASA could build a new revenue stream by shipping these small satellites into orbit for other entities—effectively meaning the agency would provide space logistics services.
Budd's proposal riffs off an existing DARPA project to fly satellites into orbit on jets. Instead of using a jet, the concept—currently being developed at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center—saves substantial funds and gains performance advantages by not employing a human pilot. NASA research indicates a performance boost to orbit of between 25% and 50%, and launch costs for satellites could be reduced up to 40%.
More important, the glider's lack of in-plane human operators and low weight mean rocket boosters can be fired from the plane with sharply reduced blast concerns. The glider would be towed to altitudes approaching 40,000 feet by a large transport aircraft—and from there, rockets would fire, propelling it into space.
"We try to keep the glider as light as possible," Budd said during a recent lab demonstration. "Every pound of weight on the glider is a pound less for the rocket we're taking into space." The Towed Glider fires lightweight commercial and educational satellites into space; the glider's construction allows it to carry twice its own weight.
The small, lightweight satellites they deploy are used for everything from gamma-ray research to zero-gravity biology experiments. NASA is joining Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, and others in hoping cubesats become a big deal for corporations. It's an audacious bet; all three organizations hope making satellite launch and development into a less-than-$100,000 investment will spur private interest.
NASA has built a 24-foot wingspan, twin fuselage proof-of-concept model of the glider and has conducted six test tow flights on an F-106. Final approval of the concept and transformation into a working space delivery system is dependent on government funding and approval. NASA says that potential partnerships with both the Defense Department and private contractors are currently under discussion.
Note: Due to the federal shutdown, NASA representatives were not available to answer additional queries for this story.