German startups launch mini-rocket challenge at SpaceX and co.

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Augsburg (Germany) (AFP)

Auto-manufacturing powerhouse Germany is rushing to join the private sector space race as it seeks to detonate mini-launchers for small satellites and compete with large US companies such as SpaceX.

Three projects in particular make Germany a serious player in the race to supply mini-launchers for the growing number of small satellites that observe Earth and provide Internet of Things and intelligent vehicle connectivity.

At the end of July, the German company Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA) successfully carried out a first test of its “RFA One” rocket, by firing the engine for eight seconds at its development site in Kiruna, Sweden.

The rocket’s “staged combustion” system is used by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, but has yet to be deployed in Europe.

According to the operational director of RFA, Joern Spurmann, it allows “to put into orbit 30% more payload”.

Another German company, Baden-Württemberg-based HyImpulse, also made waves with a 20-second engine test on the Shetland Islands in May, using fuel made from spark plug wax to maximize efficiency.

“Our technology is advanced enough to serve the mini-launch vehicle market,” said Christian Schmierer, co-founder of HyImpulse.

Isar Aerospace, which is run just outside Munich by three directors in their 30s, has yet to perform its first engine test but is the best funded of the three.

Backed by investors such as Swiss bank Lombard Odier, venture capitalists HV Capital and the holding company Porsche SE, the startup has raised more than 150 million euros ($ 180 million) in funding, and hopes to launch its rocket “Spectrum” for the first time. times in 2022.

– Satellite taxis –

Isar Aerospace predicts that the market for mini-launchers will reach “more than 30 billion euros by 2027, of which around a third will be small and medium-sized satellites”.

Weighing just a few hundred kilograms, these small satellites are tiny compared to machines up to 10 tonnes that are put into orbit by the European Space Agency’s Ariane rockets.

Three projects make Germany a serious player in the race to supply mini-launchers for the growing number of small satellites orbiting the Earth. LENNART PREISS AFP

“A big rocket is like a long-distance bus that drops off all of its passengers at the same stop. A micro-launcher works like a taxi, placing the satellites exactly where the customer wants them, ”says Christian Schmierer of HyImpulse.

According to Daniel Metzler, founder of Isar Aerospace, the smallest will be little more than “boxes of about 10 centimeters, weighing barely a kilogram (2.2 pounds) and orbiting the Earth 28,000 kilometers by time”.

Reducing size and maximizing efficiency also means reducing costs.

“Eventually, we will be able to load 1.3 tonnes of material for five million euros, a price significantly lower than the competition at 3,850 euros per kilo”, specifies RFA.

– The Henry Ford Moment –

The three German startups aim to eventually build up a fleet of 20 to 40 partially reusable rockets, guaranteeing dozens of launches per year.

Subcontractors from the auto industry, many of whom are looking to diversify from combustion engine vehicles, will supply engine parts for the rockets.

“We want to create a Henry Ford moment for space travel,” said Spurmann, referring to the American industrialist who revolutionized car production at the turn of the 20th century.

Three German startups aim to eventually assemble a fleet of 20 to 40 partially reusable rockets, guaranteeing dozens of launches per year.
Three German startups aim to eventually assemble a fleet of 20 to 40 partially reusable rockets, guaranteeing dozens of launches per year. LENNART PREISS AFP

Yet Germany is far from being the only country eyeing this lucrative market. SpaceX is already putting mini-satellites into orbit in collaboration with NASA, while its American rival Rocket Lab is among the pioneers of extraterrestrial commercial flights.

China is also active in the sector, while there are half a dozen serious projects in Europe, notably in Spain and the United Kingdom.

“The reliability of the different business models will be a central issue over the next three to five years,” said Carla Filotico of SpaceTec, German consultant for the space industry.

“Industry consolidation” would likely leave some companies behind, she added.

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