The world’s largest Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) by mass has been unveiled by a private rocket-launch startup that aims to carry rockets loaded with satellites into the atmosphere for launch into low-earth orbit. Weighing in at almost 28 tons, the jet-powered aircraft, Ravn X, is designed to be capable of launching a satellite into space every 180 minutes and has secured $1 billion in government contracts for the Alabama-based company Aevum.
“Aevum is completely reimagining access to space. The current definition of rocket science doesn’t work for us,” said Jay Skylus, founder and CEO of Aevum, in a statement. “Through our autonomous technologies, Aevum will shorten the lead time of launches from years to months, and when our customers demand it, minutes.”
Taking even small payloads high into the atmosphere for launch requires a pretty hefty aircraft. The Ravn X boasts a 60-foot (18.3 meters) wingspan, stands 18 feet (5.5 meters) tall, and requires the same fuel as a standard jet. The Ravn X will take off, release the rocket-powered payload once it reaches the specified drop zone, land on the runway and return itself to the hanger, entirely autonomously.
As an added bonus, the aircraft is 70 percent reusable, which Aevum claims will be improved to be 95 percent reusable in the future.
After its debut on December 3, it will not be long before the Ravn X will take to the air to deliver its first payload. Carrying ASLON-45, the first formal small launch mission contracted by the US Space Force, the Ravn X will complete its first delivery in Q3 2021.
Ravn X forms part of Aevum’s new program for satellite launching, which they are calling Autonomous Launch. Involving multiple intelligent and self-managing systems, from calculating weather conditions to uncrewed piloting of delivery vehicles, Autonomous Launch is aimed at delivering payloads destined for space with minimal human decision-making and at a much faster rate than existing systems. Furthermore, not using human pilots would completely remove the risk to life associated with entry into orbit.
However, some experts have commented that the Ravn X is joining an already-saturated market of air-launching delivery vehicles. According to Phil Smith, a senior analyst at Bryce Space and Technology, there are already many similar delivery systems out there.
“There’s a plethora of systems out there,” he told Science Magazine. “There isn’t room for more than perhaps three to five or so.”
Many of these delivery vehicles are currently piloted by humans, in contrast to Aevum's autonomous system, which may or may not be enough for it to stand out from the competition. Still, powerful uncrewed aircraft such as this represent an impressive jump forward for aeronautical and space technology, and the future of rapid payload deployment into orbit is closer than ever before.