Toy-like rockets could someday carry tiny satellites and human ashes to space

When Microlaunchers was founded in 1995, rocket launches were dominated by large companies and governments interested in shipping huge amounts of cargo up to space.

Things aren’t too different today–the space industry still revolves around getting large items like telecommunications satellites to orbit–but change is happening. Companies like SpaceX and Firefly are reducing the cost for small payloads to make it to space. In 2013, more shoebox-sized satellites known as CubeSats launched than in all years prior combined.

Microlaunchers, which wants to manufacture large numbers of rockets that weigh anywhere between 220 pounds and 60 tons, is catching its second wind based on that trend. The startup would charge $50,000 to launch a single 2.2-pound CubeSat, and provide a private rocket that can launch at anytime weather permits. CEO Charles Pooley imagines rockets and launchpads small enough to be moved and handled as if they are toys. Larger rockets would be capable of carrying more cargo. Dozens could be lined up in a single area and launch every hour or two.

A rendering of what a Microlaunchers launch pad and rocket might look like. Image courtesy of Microlaunchers.

A rendering of what a Microlaunchers launch pad and rocket might look like. Image courtesy of Microlaunchers.

“These things would be far smaller and simpler than any rocket in the business,” Pooley said in an interview. “As soon as it becomes physically possible to make thousands of these, (Microlaunchers rockets) will be sold.”

A 2.2-pound CubeSat would generally cost around $12,600 to send to low-Earth orbit through SpaceX, or $20,000 through an emerging option like Firefly. But with a SpaceX rocket, a CubeSat maker might have to wait months before space opens up. Then the launch schedule is at the mercy of the largest holders of cargo. Firefly can provide greater control for small companies, but they still need to buy most or all of the $8 or 9 million worth of cargo space it will provide each launch.

Microlaunchers co-founders Pooley and COO Blair Gordon have waited 20 years to see the rockets built. This year, the company embarked on raising $600,000 on AngelList and was accepted into the Las Vegas Start Up Hive incubator. If the money comes through, Microlaunchers plans to build its first fleet of 100 rockets.

“There is demand for it,” Gordon said. “We just have to get to the next phase.”

Most CubeSats have been dedicated to collecting images and other data on Earth. But Pooley and Gordon are wary of sending many more tiny satellites into Earth’s orbit. Each new satellite increases the chances of collisions, which create dangerous space debris. Instead, they would like to see small spacecraft dedicated to exploring other parts of the solar system and beyond. Each pound sent beyond low-Earth orbit will cost roughly $125,000.

Easier launches for tiny amounts of cargo would also open up opportunities for a rare service: space burials. Since 1992, cremated human remains have been released into space. Microlaunchers foresees the possibility of doing thousands a month.

“This is a brand new way of approaching space that does not yet exist that can,” Pooley said. “The problem is getting people to grasp the idea.”