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Orbitec will use $25 million Air Force contract to make small launch vehicle

Madison, Wis. - A United States Air Force contract to fund the development of small space vehicle technology could not only provide a Madison aerospace research and product development firm with up to $24.9 million, it also could enable it to propel something much larger.

The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory has awarded $3.9 million to Orbital Technologies Corp. (Orbitec) for the development of a small launch vehicle, but it might issue additional delivery orders depending on program requirements.

"We're just getting underway, and the universal small launch vehicle is the first task," said Orbitec CEO Eric Rice. The contract will finance Orbitec as it produces technology demonstrations, designs, and conceptual vehicle work.

"We're pleased that the government wants to investigate these technologies," Rice said. "If we are successful, we might make a difference in the whole area of access to space."

Orbitec will focus on improving designs for smaller demonstration flight vehicles like sub-orbital vehicles and others that could be capable of propelling between 1,000 and 5,000-kilogram payloads into orbit.
"Then we'll look at some really big vehicles," Rice said. "But right now we're focused on doing the technology demonstrations that can allow the design to happen."

Tanks, engines, and nozzles

The vehicle project compliments existing Orbitec projects already underway with the Air Force. Orbitec is currently building the capability to test unique propellant tanks and feed-systems by the end of 2007. Rice said he is excited by the various potential applications of the engines for space exploration and commercialized space tourism.

Orbitec also is perfecting patented designs for 30,000-pound thrust liquid methane-oxygen engines, and liquid propane-oxygen vortex engines, with tests slated for two years or more from now. A separate project focuses on hybrid rocket engines that burn paraffin wax.

Testing for "Forward One," an Air Force-funded project to develop a 7,000 to 10,000-pound thrust-vortex engine fueled by hydrocarbons and liquid oxygen, is slated for later this year. Testing is ordinarily conducted at the Badger Army Ammunition Plant in Sauk County, 35 miles northwest of Madison.

"We're testing a 1,000-pound thrust engine right now, and we're learning a lot," Rice said.

In addition, Orbitec will conduct external plug nozzle tests with smaller engines within approximately three years.

As product development continues, the company will keep the rights to commercialize its designs. At this point, Orbitec executives do not know whether they are going to supply the vehicles internally, or whether they will sell the technology.

Orbitec was established in 1988, and now reports $8 million in annual revenue and employs 77 people.

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