At the MIT Sloan New Space Age Conference in Boston, Ursa Major joined fellow engineers from Accion Systems, Agile Space Industries, and Relativity Space on a panel to discuss space propulsion development and operation.
Representing Ursa Major was senior propulsion analysis engineer Eduardo Rondon. We’ve edited and expanded upon his comments for this Q&A.
What is Ursa Major’s unique offering among American space launch companies?
Eduardo: For starters, we are America’s only privately funded company that focused solely on propulsion. Unlike any other engines, Ursa Major engines can be used on different vehicles for multiple purposes, including space launch and hypersonics.
Our vision is to enable bolder missions and continue to break through the boundaries of what is possible. We do this by mastering propulsion, which enables others to push the boundaries of their missions in air or space. In the near term, this means we help launch companies get to space faster, more reliably, and for a lower cost. We also power hypersonic testbeds to rapidly advance R&D in that sector.
What is the advantage of developing standalone propulsion systems?
Eduardo: Propulsion is the most challenging, time-consuming and riskiest part of launch. It accounts for 55% of all launch failures. Because we focus on propulsion and hire the best propulsion experts, we’re able to build a more reliable product.
Another advantage is we get more data, faster, because we develop these systems in-house for multiple customers. This large amount of diverse data combined with a rapid feedback loop results in a better product, and we learn lessons from multiple environments that help us build better systems overall.
Our customers benefit from this business model as well. By not spending money on engine design and testing, companies now have freed up capital to invest in other areas of the business. History tells us that it takes $40–$200 million and four to seven years to build a viable rocket from scratch. You can use that time and money to compete for propulsion engineers to build a one-off engine, or you can buy a reusable off-the-shelf engine (or several) from us.
This option didn’t exist before. By buying off-the-shelf engines from us, launch companies offload the development risk and have an engine ready for installation as soon as their vehicle is ready. We believe the industry will move toward specialization and horizontal integration.
What are the key innovations that are improving launch vehicle and in-space propulsion?
Eduardo: Many big innovations have happened in the background and enabled significant advancements in engine technology and rocketry.
For example, the impact of Moore’s Law—the idea that the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles every two years—on processing power led to the creation of advanced analysis tools that were once only internal codes at the NASA/GEs/Pratts of the world. That computing power now allows for small teams and companies to hit levels of performance and reliability on both propulsion and launch vehicles that one or two decades ago were previously only accessible to mega-corporations.
Because these innovations have resulted in the creation of reusable launchers, it’s now more affordable to get to space. People are starting companies and brand-new business models that hinge on the assumption that it won't cost $100 million for a space launch. This includes companies focused on imaging constellations, low-earth-orbit communications satellites, in-space manufacturing, or even far-out stuff like asteroid mining.
How is additive manufacturing (3D printing) changing your development process?
Eduardo: Additive manufacturing has been a game-changer in our industry. It reduces lead times and allows for flexibility during the design and prototyping process.
In the early days of Ursa Major, one of our teams used additive manufacturing to design, build and test a pump-fed oxygen-rich staged combustion engine. That wouldn’t have been possible years earlier. With traditional manufacturing methods, it’s common to hear of nine- to 12-month lead times and huge expenses in tooling to do the same thing. Additive manufacturing allows us to put a new design on the test stand, decide to make a change, work on an alternate architecture, print it and get it on the stand in weeks.
It’s a fantastic tool for a lot of things, but it’s only one tool in the box. It’s not right for every application—at least not today. We 3D-print when there’s a technology or quality advantage to doing so.
What excites you most about working for Ursa Major?
Eduardo: The team. We have about 200 employees; about three-quarters of our engineering team are ex-Blue Origin or ex-SpaceX employees. The people we have brought on from those companies are among the highest performing in their respective engine programs. The average engineer on our team has around 15 years in the industry, and the majority of our technical leadership has prior experience leading teams on engine programs such as Merlin 1D, Raptor, BE-3 and BE-4.
It’s exciting to work with such a high-caliber group of people.
What do you think are going to be key developments in propulsion technology for constellations of satellites?
Eduardo: In-orbit propellant depots with reusable propulsion systems will be key. These don’t exist today, but we’re going to want to do things like deorbit spent satellites, boost satellites if they’re degrading, and potentially service or refuel them. All of these processes require propulsion systems to execute their function.
What is the future of propulsion for crewed deep-space missions?
Eduardo: Propulsion technology will have to address reliability and reusability. For reliability, even a 1% failure rate is unacceptable. We’re excited about how our rapid testing and feedback loop drives reliability. We have accumulated more than 35,000 seconds of run time on our engines in the last five years. This is more than oxygen-rich engines typically have prior to flight.
We also believe reusability is key. You don’t get deep-space missions without reusability. It’s the only practical way to push down costs, and almost any location in the Solar System involves a propulsive landing. You’ll want to be able to generate propellant wherever you go, rather than lugging it around with you.
A good chunk of the industry is moving toward methane with these next-gen engines, but it’s not the only propellant out there. There are several simple propellants that you could potentially generate in a Martian atmosphere, for example. Eventually, we'll see what architecture makes the most sense for these types of missions.
How will propulsion factor into the Mars Sample Return Mission and next-generation space stations?
Eduardo: For Mars Sample Return, we think the opportunity is in storable propellants. I believe the current baseline is to have a hydrazine-powered sky crane lower a large rover to the surface of Mars and for the return vehicle to be powered by a solid rocket motor.
Mars is nearly a vacuum, so I would expect a large performance benefit by switching from solids to liquids. This would increase the amount of payload we could return or reduce the size of the propellant system. This is exciting for us, because new storable propellants could be applied to our product lines and used in multiple applications across the industry.
As for next-generation space stations, high-performing, reusable and designed-for-orbit engines are needed to place new stations in higher orbit.
Thanks again to Eduardo for sharing his time and expertise to help to tell the Ursa Major story.