May 06, 2022
Satellite launch vehicles and systems; contract engineering
Now in development, Aphelion Aerospace's Helios Launch Vehicle "is a three-stage rocket with liquid propellant in all three stages, with common systems in all three stages," says Matthew Travis. "That system is targeted towards 100-kilogram-sized payloads to a 400-kilometer-high orbit."
Matthew Travis describes the Helios propellant as a game changer. "This is a conventional, traditional rocket engine, but the propellants and other technologies in the rocket, we're the only ones doing it," he says. "Our propellants are non-cryogenic, meaning they're storable at room temperature, they're not high-pressure, they're non-toxic, they're environmentally friendly. These propellant chemicals themselves are non-polluting, and when they burn, the exhaust product is environmentally friendly. They meet all of NASA's standards for green propulsion."
"All of that results in a launch vehicle design and operations concept that is very streamlined, very simplified, extremely cost-effective. We're able to offer a price point for our customers that is at the lower end of the industry spectrum.
Following engine tests at the Frontier Astronautics facility near Chugwater, Wyoming, a former Atlas missile complex, the timeline calls for the manufacturing of a second iteration for a suborbital R&D launch in late 2022. "After that, we will be marketing this suborbital vehicle to researchers," says Matthew Travis. "Next year, our main milestone is the qualification of the complete first stage of Helios with NASA, then we are targeting the fourth quarter of 2024 for our first orbital launch."
Aphelion operates out of an 8,000-square-foot space in Lakewood. For manufacturing, the company relies on a network of partners and vendors for welding, CNC machining, and 3D printing. "Our rockets are going to be 3D-printed," says Matthew Travis. "Initially, we are leveraging our partners' capabilities. That's most cost-effective and gets our hardware assembled the fastest, as opposed to two years building out a factory -- although we do have plans to build out a factory."
Challenges: "We need to make sure, as we do expand and grow, and we do move into being focused on manufacturing, we need to be mindful of our leadership," says Matthew Travis. "We need to make sure that our leadership team has manufacturing and operations experience."
He also points to "supply chain management" as a big challenge. "We have been having a hack of a time with lead times on components, materials, systems. It all goes back to three things: the trade war with China, followed up by COVID, followed up now by what's going on in Europe."
Opportunities: As the launch market is projected to quadruple by 2030, Aphelion has opportunities in the research, government, and commercial markets. "At the stage we're at, we can afford to cast a wide net," says Matthew Travis.
Needs: Employees, a 20,000-square-foot facility, and capital. "We're not going to be net-positive with our profit loss for a few years, so obviously we're going to need investment and funding to grow," says Matthew Travis.
He says he's aiming to close on a Series A fundraising round in fall 2022. "We're going to grow exponentially at that point," says Matthew Travis, forecasting doubling the company's head count to 20 employees by the end of 2022.
Another need: "Domestic suppliers, large or small, at the price points and lead times that support our business model."