Perigee Aerospace sustainable rocket launches blast off into the NewSpace era

Perigee Aerospace in South Korea leverages rapid design iteration and simulation to develop customized, low-cost rockets for small satellites sustainably.

Image courtesy of Perigee Aerospace.

Perigee Aerospace’s Blue Whale 1 space launch vehicle blasting off

Kijun Lee

June 13, 2024

min read
  • Perigee Aerospace provides customized launch vehicles and launch services for an increasingly miniaturized and diversified satellite fleet.

  • Using Autodesk Vault, the company has a design iteration system where all members have access to the latest data to find the optimal design.

  • To overcome the limitation of limited domestic test space, the company actively uses simulation, including the development of a hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) simulator.

  • The company has adopted methane fuel, which is more eco-friendly than kerosene fuel, and uses aluminum and carbon fiber materials found in existing space launch vehicles.

A start-up is preparing to become the first private company to operate a space launch vehicle in South Korea—which will also make it one of the few small space launchers in the world. Small space launchers are more mass conscious than large launchers and require more sophisticated technology, but taking this more difficult path brings the dream of sustainable access to space into view. Perigee Aerospace is set to make history this summer, with a test launch from the sea west of Jeju Island.

The barriers to space remain high

Perigee Aerospace's Blue 1S engine, a liquid methane main engine
Blue 1S, a liquid methane main engine. Image courtesy of Perigee Aerospace.

The barriers to entry in the space industry remain high, even though it’s been some time since the beginning of the so-called NewSpace era, led by private companies such as SpaceX.

Thanks to the enormous value of the satellite industry, there’s a high demand for vehicles capable of launching satellites, but the supply is limited due to the correspondingly high technical barriers. This is why many companies wait years and pay millions or tens of millions of dollars to launch their satellites. Additionally, it’s difficult to get satellites to their desired orbits, as many companies’ satellites are massed on one large launch vehicle to reduce costs.

Perigee Aerospace saw an opportunity for innovation: providing customized launch vehicles and launch services for an increasingly small and diverse satellite constellation. Reducing the size of launch vehicles and dramatically lowering launch costs would lower the barriers to entry in the satellite business.

Perigee’s Blue Whale 1 launch vehicle, currently under development, can deliver 440- to 1,100-pound satellites to low Earth orbit. The company’s current goal is to use this launch vehicle to target domestic South Korean demand with the advantages of domestic launch and low launch costs, then expand into the small-launch-vehicle market in Southeast Asia and Europe.

“To succeed in the NewSpace era, a dramatic reduction in launch costs is essential, and many companies are developing launch vehicles with differentiating features to reduce these costs,” says Eunkwang Lee, VP of propulsion at Perigee Aerospace. “We are working together to develop key technologies to lower production costs, including value-added components, internalized manufacturing capabilities, and launch-vehicle reuse technologies. For example, at Perigee’s Okcheon Rocket Development Complex, we are building carbon-fiber composite tanks that can withstand cryogenic and high-pressure environments using autoclaves and additive manufacturing facilities.”

Rapid design iteration for reducing costs

One of the key factors in improving designs to reduce costs is rapid design iteration. Rather than creating and discarding tons of physical prototypes, the optimal design is found by iterating through numerous design simulations with varying parameters and then analyzing the data. The faster and more accurate this process is, the lower the cost and the higher the quality of the final product.

To ensure fast and accurate design iterations, Perigee Aerospace centralizes the design iteration process around Autodesk Inventor, which allows the team to go from design to validation to visualization on one platform. “We use Inventor for 3D work and AutodeskAutoCAD for 2D drawing work, and it's great to be able to design, analyze, redesign, fabricate, and draw all in one tool,” Lee says. “Inventor allows us to create the basic data for analysis, and it’s very easy to simplify or edit the data to make it more interpretable. Once you’ve done that, you can use Inventor’s built-in structural analysis capabilities to quickly derive structural solutions and incorporate them into your design. Inventor's rendering capabilities provide visualizations that look and feel very similar to the actual product.”

This data is then systematized through Autodesk Vault to ensure that all team members have access to the most up-to-date design and test data. “We are looking to centralize data management for design iterations and ultimately internalize our design, fabrication, and testing capabilities,” Lee says. “We are leveraging Vault to manage access by team and ensure that data security is maintained in a way that is specific to each team. He adds that since the design iteration process generates a lot of data, managing this in Vault lets everyone see the latest data, eliminating confusion and speeding up development.

Using simulation to ensure reusable technology

A Perigee Aerospace launch vehicle returns to the ground for vertical landing and reuse.
Perigee Aerospace is testing launch vehicle reuse technology. Image courtesy of Perigee Aerospace.

One major challenge to cost savings is launch-vehicle reuse. Reusable launch vehicles cost one-twentieth the amount to launch as conventional launch vehicles, making reusable technology essential to Perigee’s goal of lowering barriers to space. However, it requires extremely sophisticated instrumentation and control to ensure that the first stage of a launch vehicle can propel the second stage and its payload to an altitude of 60 miles or so, then return to the ground to land upright and undamaged in an exact location. Because of the difficulty of this technology, only a handful of companies, including SpaceX, are currently able to reuse launch vehicles.

Companies like Perigee, which develop smaller launch vehicles, face even more obstacles to reuse. A smaller launch vehicle is much harder to control and is more vulnerable to disturbances on landing. Furthermore, launch-vehicle reuse requires high-risk tests, such as vertical takeoffs and landings. Unlike in the United States, which has many deserts and other open spaces, South Korea doesn’t have as many open areas to conduct these risky tests.

Lee says that overcoming these challenges requires simulation. “Perigee has developed its own hardware-in-the-loop [HIL] simulator to test flight-control algorithms to ensure that the launch vehicle can be controlled normally under various disturbances and flight scenarios,” he says. With these technologies in place, the company took the first step toward launch-vehicle reusability in November 2023 with the successful vertical takeoff and landing of its test vehicle, Blue Whale 0.3, from an altitude of 330 feet.

A sustainable space industry

Combustion test of Blue 1S, Perigee Aerospace’s liquid methane main engine
Combustion test of Blue 1S, Perigee Aerospace’s liquid methane main engine. Image courtesy of Perigee Aerospace.

As the number of space launches in the NewSpace era continues to increase, so does their environmental impact. The current number of launches worldwide is still relatively low, about 200 per year, which makes it challenging to assess their environmental impact accurately. But it’s anticipated that the number of launches will rise dramatically in the future, making sustainability a crucial aspect of space-launch-vehicle design.

To achieve sustainability, Perigee Aerospace employs environmentally friendly materials and fuels. The primary material of the Blue Whale 1 airframe is carbon fiber, a much lighter material than the aluminum commonly used in conventional launch vehicles. This improves fuel efficiency and reduces carbon dioxide emissions, benefiting the environment. Additionally, the launch vehicle features an engine that uses liquid methane as propellant rather than kerosene, thus significantly reducing the amount of pollution emitted into the atmosphere.

In the future, Perigee Aerospace will continue to develop new eco-friendly technologies to enhance the sustainability of its launch vehicles. Recently, the company has been focusing on biomethane, which is produced by decomposing livestock manure, food waste, and more. “Since the Blue Whale 1 is fueled by methane, it is possible to use liquid methane liquefied from biomethane as a fuel,” Lee says. “We plan to leverage these advantages to develop a carbon-neutral launch vehicle as the usage of biomethane as propellant increases in the future.”

Kijun Lee headshot

About Kijun Lee

Kijun Lee is a freelance journalist and translator. He has worked as a journalist for JoongAng Ilbo and Forbes Korea. He is interested in international affairs, cutting-edge technology, and community relations. He is currently the editor of Design & Make with Autodesk in Korean.

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