This week, a company based out of Alabama called Aevum unveiled the Ravn X, a drone designed to carry and launch satellites into low-orbit. It weighs in at approximately 55,000 pounds when it’s carrying a full payload, making it one of the heaviest unmanned aircraft in existence today. It also stands 18 feet tall, has a wingspan of 60 feet and looks like it came straight out of Macross Plus.
The promise of the drone is that it can put a payload in low-earth orbit in approximately three hours, a fact Aevum claims will allow it to shorten lead times on satellite launches from years to months. Outside of its ominous-looking exterior and record-setting mass, the Ravn X isn’t so different from other aircraft. It only needs about 1-mile of runway to get in the air, allowing it to take off from almost any commercial airport. It also uses the same fuel as a traditional jet.
Once the Ravn X gets up to a suitable altitude, the two-stage rocket it’s carrying drops from its belly, igniting in about half a second. Eventually, Aevum says 95 percent of the launch vehicle will be reusable, but to start about 70 percent can be used again. When the Ravn X finishes a delivery, it simply lands and heads back to a hanger to prepare for another launch.
Aevum says the Ravn X represents a new paradigm of putting a rocket into space. And while the autonomous aspect of its approach is different, there are other companies working to put rockets into space from aircraft. Virgin Orbit is one such company — though it has yet to successfully complete a test launch. Ravn X’s first mission will see it attempt to put the US Space Force’s ASLON-45 satellite into orbit sometime next year.