Startup Ursa Major announced Wednesday that it has completed the rehabilitation of its Hadley rocket engine for use by a space launch vehicle and a hypersonic launch system. The Colorado-based company said it has already begun delivering ready-to-fly Hadley engines to two customers, Phantom Space and Stratolaunch, and plans to produce a total of 30 engines this year.
The Hadley engine is relatively small compared to rocket engines, with a force of approximately 5,000 pounds. At this level of performance, Hadley is comparable to Rutherford’s engine at Rocket Lab, nine of which power the first stage of the Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket.
In her ad, Ursa Major described the versatility of the Hadley motor used in two different environments. Phantom Space is developing its Daytona rocket as a small lift, using seven Hadley engines in its first stage to lift up to 450 kg into low Earth orbit. A single, vacuum-improved Hadley motor will power the upper stage. Phantom says it is booking launches for 2023.
By contrast, Stratolaunch has built the world’s largest aircraft, with a wingspan of 385 feet (117 meters). The aircraft, known as the Roc, recently completed its fourth test flight and reached an altitude of 15,000 feet (4.6 km). This massive carrier aircraft will be used to launch hypersonic missile-powered Talon A vehicles, which will serve as a test platform for hypersonic research. Stratolaunch plans to start test flights this year and offer commercial and government services in 2023.
“It has been very challenging,” Joe Llorente, founder and CEO of Ursa Major, said in an interview with Ars about developing a versatile rocket engine. “When you focus on one task, you focus on one application. You really are designing precisely the things that can go wrong in the engine and that you have to work with.”
Designed to serve multiple users, the Hadley motor has undergone a significantly longer test time, about 40 thousand seconds so far. Tested in air launch simulations, for multi-replay capability, deep throttling, and more. “You try to simulate more of the problems that the engine has to go through and survive, then one mission or one launch application,” Llorente said.
After previously working on a Merlin rocket engine at SpaceX and BE-3 at Blue Origin, Laurienti founded Ursa Major in 2015. He saw plenty of startups, but felt there was a niche for a company focused solely on propulsion. His company decided to start with a smaller engine (because smaller engines were economically viable) and then grow from there. The Hadley engine now has several customers — another Air Force X-60A plane — and Llorente said interest is strong.
Llorente said his sales pitch when he meets potential clients is straightforward. “Having a motor on the shelf will save you more than five years,” he said. “It will also probably save you $100 million. So that’s usually a quick, quick conversation.”
With Ursa Major, Laurienti sought to keep engine costs low by using mass-market 3D printers and by keeping a relatively low headcount. The total number of employees in the company only recently increased to more than 200 employees. To date, Ursa Major has raised about $140 million.
And while Ursa Major started out small, the company is already working on developing the much larger Ripley Engine. With 50,000 pounds of thrust, Ripley is targeting the mid-range launch market.
“We see Ripley entering the market here in the next couple of years with two partners,” Llorente said. “And then there’s definitely another engine program on the way that we’re not really talking about yet, but hopefully very soon.”
At this point, Laurienti should have an idea of whether the market is really ready to support a commercial aerospace company dedicated solely to liquid rocket engines.