X-Bow Systems successfully flew its new “Bolt Rocket” for the first time at White Sands Missile Range on Saturday, marking a major milestone for the company’s new, breakthrough rocket-motor technology and launch capabilities.
The Albuquerque-based company has developed a unique 3D printing process for solid-state rocket-motor fuel, along with a new family of launch vehicles for orbital and suborbital flights. Its additive fuel manufacturing process is a first for the space industry, potentially representing one of the biggest technological leaps in rocket-motor fabrication in the past 50 years, said company founder and CEO Jason Hundley.
X-Bow (pronounced “crossbow”) technology could revolutionize rocket launches, radically reducing the costs and timelines to shoot vehicles into space.
The White Sands launch comes after nearly six years of technology development by X-Bow, which emerged from stealth mode for the first time only this spring.
“It was our first flight and we were thrilled with the success we achieved on Saturday,” Hundley told the Journal. “… This is the first of many new capabilities we’re developing for suborbital, and potentially orbital, flights. We’re working on more launches now with different customers to eventually fly multiple times per year.”
The weekend flight included a test payload for Los Alamos National Laboratory, kicking off a collaborative relationship that could lead to many more X-Bow payload launches for LANL, said Charlie Nakhleh, Associate Laboratory Director for Weapons Physics.
“(It’s) the first example of what we expect to be a fruitful collaboration between the laboratory and X-Bow Systems,” Nakhleh said in a statement. “This partnership will enable the laboratory to leverage the revolution in commercial space flight, and provide our scientists and engineers with rapid and cost-effective access to experimental flight test data.”
Although the company only unveiled its technology and business development publicly this year, it’s constructed a formidable base of operations in New Mexico. That includes a 5,000-square-foot office in Uptown Albuquerque, and a rocket-motor manufacturing and test hub in Socorro.
It currently employs 70 people, about half in New Mexico, with potential expansion to 100 employees this year.
And it has already snagged many contracts with defense and other government entities. It generated about $7 million in revenue in 2021 and projects $15 million to $20 million this year.
The company is also flush with capital for continued research, development and commercial operations. It raised $27 million in venture investment in April. And, since December 2020, has received about $1.2 million in state Job Training Incentive Program assistance.
The company originally developed its new launch vehicle under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with Sandia National Laboratories and the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base. Until recently, however, it purchased solid-state rocket-motor fuel from other companies. But that commercial procurement process was excruciatingly slow and costly, with each batch of fuel taking at least six to eight weeks to produce, Hundley said.
So, the company decided to produce its own solid-state fuel, creating a new additive-manufacturing process that cuts fuel development to two or three days, radically reducing costs and timelines. That automated process is encased in shipping containers – which X-Bow calls its “Rocket Factory in a Box” – allowing the company to independently manage its own “make, build and fly” production line to offer customers quick turnaround at cut-rate prices.
“We’ve developed a safer, faster and cheaper process that we believe will reduce the capital cost for production by 90%, and labor costs by between 80% and 90%,” Hundley said.
The White Sands launch, dubbed the XL-2 mission, was achieved in a compressed development time frame, said X-Bow XL-2 Mission Manager and Director of Programs Sam McCraw.
“The XL-2 launch caps off an impressive and successful three-month effort at X-Bow,” McCraw said in a statement. “Over this short period, our talented team designed and built a new test site, completed our first large motor static fire, and pulled off an 11-day launch campaign leading to a successful first flight.”