Since the launch of Explorer 1, America’s first Earth-orbiting satellite, in 1958, the majority of the payloads orbited by the United States have been launched on modified military ballistic missiles. And despite the improvements to existing expendable launcher systems like the Delta IV and Atlas V, U.S. access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is still dominated by a paradigm rooted in rockets derived from the German V-2 of seven decades ago.
In addition, the nature of the payloads that the United States needs to launch into LEO is rapidly changing. The huge satellites of the Cold War era, some the size of buses and weighing more than 25 tons, are today being replaced by payloads as small as a loaf of bread with a mass of less than 10 pounds. The result is U.S. LEO access that frequently is cost-ineffective and not responsive to fast-breaking national needs.
Multipurpose NanoMissile System
The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s (SMDC’s) Multipurpose NanoMissile System has a very simple design. The core vehicle is an integrated booster airframe and fuel tank containing a benign bi-propellant mix of ethane and nitrous oxide, and utilizes a current launcher and hardware already in the Army inventory. This includes both the M270 and High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) launchers for the Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) and Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS). In addition, the core NanoMissile booster can be augmented with strap-on solid rocket boosters (SRBs) developed from surplus Army MLRS rockets when used for launches to LEO. Furthermore, NanoMissile can potentially be used for long-range (up to intercontinental ranges) precision strike with small conventional warheads.
NanoMissile is designed to carry small payloads, such as the new Nanosatellites, into LEO, and has the ability to also fly suborbital and sounding missions. Suborbital mission costs range from roughly $277,000 up to $1 million, with orbital missions holding steady at about $1 million per launch.
If bought in quantity, the NanoMissile core itself can be purchased for as little as $150,000. This price tag adds to the NanoMissile’s appeal, since the U.S. Air Force and NASA launches cost in the multiple millions (sometimes 30 to 50 times more).
NanoMissile’s dramatically low cost makes it an economically viable alternative to legacy-based booster systems, which is only one of its advantages for potential launch clients.
Add to this the ability to launch from the back of an existing M270/HIMARS transporter/erector/launcher (TEL) or even a Mk. 41 vertical launch system (VLS) on a warship, and the flexibility and value of the NanoMissile concept becomes clearer. Finally, there is incredible simplicity through the creative use of mature/legacy technologies, which feeds into two things every launch customer desires: a predictable and reliable ride for their payload(s) to LEO.
Return of an Army Capability
While the U.S. Army led in the development of missile technology after World War II, that leadership role was relinquished with the advent of NASA and the Air Force’s development and command of the nation’s ICBM arsenal. Although the Army is presently the largest U.S. consumer of missile defense and space technologies, and has the largest arsenal of missiles and rockets of all the services, the Army traditionally uses its missile/rocket force as weapons platforms, not as tools designed to test, exercise, and deploy key missile defense programs and space technologies. NanoMissile is intended to fulfill that need and be the designated missile for such tests and exercises.
The NanoMissile is about the diameter of a basketball hoop at 24 inches, with the booster standing about 12 feet high. The rocket’s modularity could make it useful not only as a launch vehicle but potentially as a missile defense target, sounding rocket, and hypersonic test vehicle as well. One other area of growing interest is to convert the NanoMissile core into a hypersonic heavy air-to-ground missile, for use on UAVs and strike aircraft, or even an intercontinental conventional strike weapon.
When coupled with the new generation of Nanosatellites, the Army and other launch customers can potentially deploy swarms of small satellites to form constellations over the battlefield. John London, the director of the Nanosatellite technology programs at SMDC, said, “One of the reasons we like satellites of this class is we can afford to put a lot of them up there to where the entire constellation is still relatively inexpensive. If one satellite up there fails, and I need to replace it with a $300,000 satellite in a very specific orbit, and the lowest cost launch vehicle out there is at least 30 to 50 times the cost of that spacecraft, that won’t work.” With a low-cost launch system like NanoMissile, possessing qualities like tactical mobility and rapid launch preparation, such hopes by field commanders may finally be fulfilled.