General Atomics, CubeSats, and Rail Guns to Space!


1. Some context...

General Atomics, who is better known for building combat drones and mining uranium, is on a smallsat acquisition roll. Last February, they acquired Miltec and managed to get a foothold in small satellite production. On November 13, they acquired assets from Surrey Satellite Technology (SST), striking a deal for their Colorado’s smallsat factory for an undisclosed amount.

This purchase expands General Atomics' range of small satellite production. Nick Bucci, vice president of missile defense and space systems for General Atomics’ Electromagnetic Systems Group, told SpaceNews last month that the company is building 3U and soon 6U CubeSats weighing just several kilograms, but wanted to build spacecraft weighing as much as 500 kilograms. Owning SST-U.S’s factory provides that capability.


General Atomics prefers closer ties with defense customers rather than building CubeSats for commercial customers. Because CubeSats are fairly low budget satellites, General Atomics sees the need to address the concern of quality and mission success. They aim to achieve this by building spacecraft with more stringent requirements and offering reliability to defense customers that they will work as expected. The company has built 11 CubeSats up to date.

2. Rail Guns to Launch Spacecraft?

General Atomic teases using a railgun launch system that would use electromagnetic force to fire smallsats into orbit. “The pros are it’s much cheaper,” Bucci said. “I don’t need to build a rocket. I don’t need to go to a launch facility and go through the expense of building rockets that can launch these payloads. It’s a readily available site and all it takes is electricity. It would be probably faster and certainly cheaper if you could do it as compared to having to build a rocket specifically to launch.”


However, the con list of such a launcher is long. “We’ve had a number of people ask us about it, [but] it’s not an easy problem, mainly because to get to launch velocities that you require, you need a very long launcher, and I mean a very long launcher,” Bucci said, adding that it would need to be several football fields long. “You would want to build it at a higher altitude if you could, on a mountaintop or on the slope of a mountain essentially.”

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