Colorado companies have a habit of doing big things beyond Earth’s atmosphere, with the state playing a major role in the nation’s space economy.
Whether it’s mapping other worlds, making part of the most powerful space telescope ever launched or bringing back humanity’s biggest extraterrestrial sample from an asteroid, there’s a regular flow of high-profile space projects being done by companies in the Denver metro area. And it has been that way for years. If you’ve heard of a space project, there’s likely a Colorado connection, if not a local business leading the entire thing.
Even with that track record, 2024 features unusually significant launches and project milestones.
NASA hopes to launch the Artemis II mission about a year from now, late in 2024, carrying astronauts on an extended mission around the moon. It’s the most ambitious space voyage with people on board that has launched in decades, and it will use a space capsule known as Orion that is designed and managed by Jefferson County-based Lockheed Martin Space.
The capsule’s flight would likely lead a highlight reel of Colorado space accomplishments for next year, but there’s a chance that it will slide in 2025 given the complexities of readying NASA’s massive Space Launch System rocket.
Being the headlining act in NASA’s Artemis moon program is a big deal, but it’s far from the only Colorado space project people will be watching in 2024.
Here are five other projects with milestones over the next year that should make their mark in space.
Project: Dream Chaser debut
Who’s doing it: Sierra Space, a Louisville-based, privately held commercial space technology and manufacturing company
Name to know: Tom Vice, Sierra Space CEO
What is Dream Chaser? A space plane manufactured in Louisville by Sierra Space that is slated to take flight atop a rocket bringing it to orbit for the first time in April or early spring on a mission to deliver 12,000 pounds of cargo to the orbiting International Space Station. It’s the first of seven ISS resupply missions NASA has contracted Dream Chaser to make in the next five years.
The spacecraft, which flies without crew, will spend time berthed at the ISS before flying back autonomously using its own computer systems to land on a runway at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, where space shuttles used to land.
Before that launch, the 30-foot-long Dream Chaser spacecraft will be tested at NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility, in Sandusky, Ohio, before heading to Florida for launch.
At least 11 NASA astronauts assigned to four future ISS crews have trained at a Louisville mockup version of the spacecraft to familiarize themselves with how to access and unload cargo from Dream Chaser.
Why it’s a big deal: The spring 2024 flight will be Dream Chaser’s debut launch to orbit, a milestone capping more than 15 years of spacecraft development by hundreds of employees at Sierra Space and its predecessor company, SpaceDev.
Including contractors, hundreds of people worked on the spacecraft to get the first Dream Chaser ready for testing. Many of them were laid off by the company in late November.
A successful first flight will change Sierra Space from a spacecraft developer into an operational, spacefaring business that’s able to regularly send cargo and, eventually, people into orbit, CEO Tom Vice says.
The company also is shifting to explore opportunities for its spacecraft with the U.S. military, bringing 150 employees with national security clearances over from its former parent company, Sierra Nevada Corp.
In addition to building the Dream Chaser, Sierra Space is creating inflatable habitats that can be used as rooms for orbiting space stations. The company is partnering with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to use them and create privately-owned research outposts known as Orbital Reef.
The cargo Dream Chasers are the predecessors to a crew version of the spacecraft that Sierra Space plans to build to carry astronauts into orbit. The first crewed variant of Dream Chaser is hoped to be ready in 2026, the company says.
The quickly reusable spacecraft will be key to providing access to space stations in orbit and returning people and cargo to gentle runway landings. Vice said. Launching the cargo version will introduce a revolutionary product to the space industry, he said.
“This will change how we travel from Earth to space and back again. This will change everything,” Vice said at an Oct. 30 gathering of Sierra Space employees to celebrate the completion of the first spacecraft.
Project: Vulcan Centaur rocket
Who’s doing it: United Launch Alliance, a Centennial-based space launch and rocket-making company that’s a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.
Name to know: Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA
What is Vulcan? The Vulcan Centaur is the new space launch rocket that ULA has been working on since 2015 and is scheduled to blast off for its first mission on Dec. 24 in Florida. The 220-foot-tall, methane-fueled rocket is scheduled to carry a NASA-funded robotic lunar probe — the Peregrine lander, built by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic — to the moon.
The rocket will also carry human remains into space for Houston-based Celestis Inc., which arranges deep-space interments. Its flight will include remains of author Arthur C. Clarke, Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry and the TV series actors James Doohan (“Scotty”), Nichelle Nichols (“Ohuru”) and Jackson Deforest Kelley (“Bones”). ULA CEO Tory Bruno and wife Rebecca will also send DNA samples on the mission.
The Christmas Eve launch (scheduled to lift off at 11:49 p.m. Dec. 23 Mountain Time) will complete a mission that’s more than two years delayed due to slower-than-expected engine development and other issues.
An unexpected need to reinforce part of the rocket’s Centaur upper-stage fuel tanks pushed the mission back from May to the holiday season.
Bruno on Nov. 15 confirmed all of Vulcan’s hardware is ready for the debut launch. ULA had begun stacking the rocket parts on the launch platform at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Side-booster rockets were added to the main Vulcan stage in early November. Soon the upper stage, newly arrived by ship from a ULA factory, and the lunar lander payload will be added.
Why it’s a big deal: Vulcan is a replacement for the Atlas V and Delta rocket families, which ULA has used to launch $70 billion worth of satellites into orbit, including most of the federal government’s military, intelligence and advanced weather satellites since the company was formed in 2006.
The powerful Delta IV rockets were expensive to fly, and limited to launching the heaviest missions — typically giant U.S. spy satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office. ULA’s workhorse Atlas V rocket is cheaper and reliable, but it’s markedly more expensive to make than the Falcon 9 rockets flown by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which put ULA at a disadvantage when bidding to win some launch contracts.
Atlas V’s also are powered off the launchpad by Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines, which Congress has prohibited ULA from using for national security-related missions.
Vulcan uses America-based BE-4 rocket engines, manufactured by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, in its core stage. The rocket is designed to be able to handle the same range of missions as both ULA’s former rocket types but be more affordable.
ULA needs Vulcan to succeed in completing the 26 military space missions the U.S. Space Force has awarded the company in coming years and to compete for future launches after that.
The U.S. Space Force requires two successful orbital missions before Vulcan is cleared to fly national security payloads.
The first of those is the Peregrine lander launch, which ULA refers to as Certification-1. Vulcan’s second launch will be Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser cargo spacecraft launch as soon as April on a resupply mission to the International Space Station.
Vulcan also is slated to be the rocket used for dozens of launches delivering hundreds of Amazon’s Kuiper Project satellites into orbit.
Who’s doing it: Boulder-based Ball Aerospace and Blue Canyon Technologies, a Lafayette-based subsidiary of defense contractor RTX Corp.
Name to know: Alberto Conti, vice president and general manager for civil space, Ball Aerospace
What is MethaneSAT? The satellite is designed to identify and measure sources of methane on Earth as it orbits overhead. The Environmental Defense Fund commissioned the spacecraft, selecting Boulder-based Ball Aerospace to make the primary methane-detecting instruments and Blue Canyon Technologies to make the satellite’s body and related systems.
The satellite was hoped to launch in 2022 but spacecraft development delays set back the schedule.
The last public projections have MethaneSAT launching on a ride-share launch aboard SpaceX rocket in the first three months of 2024.
Why it’s a big deal: Detecting sources of methane, often leaks of oil and gas wells and pipelines, is considered a key strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and battling climate change. Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is considered several times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, though it’s shorter-lived than CO2. Stopping methane leaks is considered a key way to quickly reduce greenhouse emissions.
EDF has exposed unexpectedly large methane leaks from oil well sites in Texas and elsewhere using specially-hired planes flying instruments over a small area.
MethaneSAT is meant to provide the ability to spot new methane leaks all over the planet efficiently from space, helping companies, regulators and activists address previously unrecognized sources of the gas.
The 800-pound orbiter is estimated to cost about $88 million to build and launch, which is relatively inexpensive for a satellite mission and something EDF considers a worthwhile investment.
New Zealand’s government thought so, too. It kicked in $16 million to help fund MethaneSAT, the country’s first investment in a civilian space project.
Who’s doing it: Jefferson County-based Lockheed Martin Space, a 21,000-employee division of Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT)
Name to know: Jagdeep Shergill, program director for Geo Weather Satellites at Lockheed Martin Space
What is GOES-U? GOES-U is the latest in a series of advanced weather satellites built by Jefferson County-based Lockheed Martin Space for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, parent agency of the National Weather Service.
NASA has scheduled the satellite to launch in April.
The Lockheed Martin Space-built orbiters, each one estimated to cost about $1 billion, collect and relay 30,000 times more data than NOAA’s previous generations of weather satellites, helping forecasters protect U.S. residents from hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and severe thunderstorms by providing early detection of storm development.
The orbiters also map lightning strikes, track space weather and have instruments to detect search and rescue beacon signals on Earth and are attributed with helping save more than 300 lives.
Each satellite took about five years to assemble, with about 800 Lockheed Martin Space employees working on it over that time.
Why it’s a big deal: The satellite is the final of four advanced weather orbiters that Lockheed Martin Space was contracted 12 years ago to make.
NOAA says the addition of GOES-U will extend the functional life of the weather forecasting satellite system through at least 2036.
The first of the series, dubbed GOES-R, launched in late 2016 and collected more weather data in its first year in orbit than had been gathered by all of NOAA’s previous GOES weather satellites combined dating back to the program’s first launch in 1975.
NOAA researchers have used the new satellites’ lightning data to watch for buildups of strikes that precede tornado formation, allowing forecasters to predict twister locations 15 minutes earlier than before.
The GOES-U satellite will launch carrying a new kind of solar-imaging sensor developed by the U.S. Naval Research Lab. The Compact Coronagraph will continuously search for large-scale, fast-moving bursts of energy, known as solar plasma, that are headed toward Earth. The instrument is meant to help scientists better predict the severity of geomagnetic storms, which can interfere with communications systems and the electrical grid.