In-space transportation startup Impulse Space will head to orbit aboard a SpaceX ride-share mission later this year, as it seeks to prove out its orbital maneuvering and servicing technology for the first time.
While there’s always major pressure before an inaugural demonstration, there will likely be more eyes on Impulse’s mission than usual. That’s not least because the startup is headed by Tom Mueller, SpaceX’s former head of propulsion, a formidable engineer who led the development of the Merlin engine that powers the Falcon 9 rocket — the very rocket Impulse will use to reach space.
Impulse has also raised a notable amount of capital — including $20 million from Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and $10 million from Lux Capital — and has swelled to about 60 employees, with nearly a third joining in the past six months. To top it all off, the company announced last summer that it was teaming up with Relativity Space for a very ambitious mission to Mars — yes, Mars — as early as 2024.
But before Mars, Impulse will send its first orbital service vehicle to space to test its propulsion, payload delivery and hosting, software, communications, and maneuvering capabilities. That spacecraft, called Mira, will hitch a ride on SpaceX’s Transporter-9 ride-share mission in the fourth quarter of this year, the company announced today.
“Our vehicle has more capability than is typical,” Mueller said. For context, Impulse is targeting a Delta-V of 1,000 meters per second at 300 kilograms. The company hasn’t decided how long Mira will spend in space, but it’s planning on demonstrating atmospheric re-entry at the end of mission life. The company is currently signing the primary payload customer and is soliciting additional customers, though they don’t intend on filling up capacity for this first mission.
Designing Mira hasn’t been without its difficulties. Minimizing the mass of the chassis has been the company’s biggest challenge, Mueller said. It’s a particularly important metric, as every gram sent to space has a dollar amount attached to it — and that dollar amount can add up quickly.
"It’s six dollars a gram to fly,” Mueller said, referring to SpaceX Transporter mission costs. “Even though SpaceX has brought the cost of access so quickly down, that low cost is still six dollars a gram.”
Mueller described Mira as a “stepping stone” — he likened it to SpaceX’s Falcon 1, the precursor to the Falcon 9 — to future orbital vehicles Impulse is planning. Those future vehicles will be capable of considerably more propulsive capability, which means the ability to move more mass in the space — like what might be required for in-space manufacturing or space habitats. Those markets don’t exist yet, Mueller said, but this mission, dubbed LEO Express-1, will nevertheless inform these future aspirations.
Data from LEO Express-1 will also be useful for the future Mars mission. Both missions will use the same thrusters; they’ll also utilize the same propellants and same components, as well as the same guidance and control systems and other software.
Mueller acknowledged that the 2024 target was tight, particularly on the launch vehicle side. Relativity Space said it would use its heavy-lift Terran R rocket for the Mars mission, but it has yet to even fly its smaller Terran 1. If the companies don’t make 2024, they’ll have another opportunity two years later.
In addition to preparing for the LEO Express-1 mission and the Mars mission, Impulse is also gearing up to move into a new building that will give the company a 700%+ footprint increase. So far, the company has been working out a 7,000-square-foot building in El Segundo, California, one that has only 24 parking spots for 60 employees. (Mueller joked that people were riding bikes and carpooling to compensate.) But next month, they’ll be moving into a 60,000-square-foot space. Plenty of room to grow for a startup that continues to move fast.