The Sprite Mini-Lift Vehicle: Affordable Launcher for Small Spacecraft Missions


Maturation of small, micro-, and nano-satellite technologies is leading to many innovative new space mission applications. A primary obstacle to successful operational transition of these systems is the lack of affordable small launch capability. Due to the extremely high cost of current small launchers, small payloads often have to ride to space as secondary payloads, deferring to the orbital destination and schedule of the primary mission.
This paper will cover the design, technologies, production, and operations characteristics of an all-new generation launch system that will substantially lower the cost of a dedicated small spacecraft launch. A unique combination of low-cost technologies and innovative design and manufacturing approaches enable the Scorpius® Sprite launcher to deliver up to 700 lbs of payload to low-Earth orbit (100 nmi east) for 20% of the cost of the lowest cost U.S. launch now available.
The Scorpius® vehicle architecture employs similar propulsion “pods” for the first and second stages. The first stage uses six of these pods and the second uses a single pod. This means that seven sets of the same hardware are produced for each rocket. This increases quantity while reducing the size and number of part types used to build the vehicle.
Simple pressure-fed engines using LOX and jet fuel propellants power all-three stages of Sprite. The technology for these engines is being developed to provide nearly the performance of traditional engines, with far less production cost. Advanced graphite-composite tanks are an enabling technology that allows orbital performance without the cost and complexity of turbomachinery. The paper shows how the high-pressure, graphite-composite cryogenic tank technology is maturing and being flight demonstrated at fullscale. The processes being developed to build these tanks are optimized for very low recurring cost without the need for autoclave curing. Other technologies such as low-cost orbital-capable avionics, low-cost feed and pressurization systems, and others are also presented.
With a low vehicle production cost the need for low operations and range costs gains importance. The simplified operations and range interfaces being developed for Sprite to reduce operations complexity will be presented. Finally, the scalability of the Scorpius® launch system architecture and technologies to enable larger low-cost launchers will be shown.

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Berry, James, R. Conger, J. Kulpa, “The Sprite Mini-Lift Vehicle: Affordable Launcher for Small Spacecraft Missions,”  19th AIAA International Communications Satellite Systems Conference, Toulouse, France, Apr. 17–20, 2001.