Company Plans to Inexpensively Launch Satellites via F-104 Starfighter

New system could move launches from order to orbit in 30 days.

Lockheed F-104 Starfighter
Launch company CubeCab aims to put small satellites into orbit using rockets launched from Lockheed F-104 Starfighters.Starfighters Inc.

Successfully placing a satellite in orbit is no small expense, often costing tens of millions of dollars. In addition to the cost of the satellite itself, there’s the cost of the launch vehicle and the ground control system to bring all the elements together. If the satellite is tiny, less than 12 pounds, often referred to as a CubeSat, organizing a launch becomes even more problematic because few rockets exist of the size needed for a successful launch. The easiest way to launch a small satellite today is to simply sit back and wait for enough space to become available on a larger rocket. That can sometimes turn into a long wait.

Enter a little aviation history to the rescue: the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. Designed in the 1950s, the F-104 was the first manned aircraft in the U.S. Air Force arsenal capable of top speeds in excess of Mach 2. Starfighters were used to train pilots to fly hypersonic X-planes as well as test new materials like the heat-resistant tiles used on the Space Shuttle.

Florida-based launch firm CubeCab has designed rockets small enough to act as the source of launch propulsion for the tiny satellites. The small rockets will be attached to the F-104’s former rocket pylons beneath the wing. The launches are expected to take place once the F-104s, leased from Starfighters Inc., have reached altitudes near 60,000 feet.

CubeCab’s chief operating officer Dustin Still believes a launch should be able to happen in as little as 30 days from order to orbit. He hopes the Starfighters will be ready to begin launching CubeSats sometime next year.