Almost every large rocket has the capacity to carry smaller spacecraft that can hitch a ride to space without needing extra fuel.
Moog Space and Defense Group is offering an adapter that can be placed aboard Delta 4 or Atlas 5 rockets.
The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter, also known as an ESPA ring, can give up to six 400-pound secondary satellites a ride into space, or be converted into one free-flying spacecraft, said Joe Maly, ESPA program manager at Moog.
The Air Force Research Laboratory began investing in the research and development of the ring in 1998. CSA Engineering, which was acquired by Moog, invented the technology so space-faring agencies could get more bang for their buck when launching heavy satellites.
Each ring has six docks that can either launch six separate satellites, or be outfitted with propulsion nodes, solar arrays and payloads to convert it into one single spacecraft.
An industry trend for low-cost, small satellites has driven a demand for secondary payloads, but there are always wait lists on launch manifests.
The ring can help solve that problem, but it has been little used since its development. The Air Force Space Development and Test Wing flew it on an Atlas 5 in 2007. In June 2009, it carried NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to the moon, but it hasn’t been used since. Moog brought one of the rings to the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., to drum up some interest.
The Defense Department, NASA — as well as large aerospace companies and universities — have seen the economic advantage of using these adapters to put satellites into orbit, Maly said.
So why hasn’t the Air Force, and the other agencies, taken advantage of the AFRL investment?
“Inertia in the space industry,” replied MOOG space and defense group president Jay Hennig.