Mini-rockets: Germany is fast approaching to offer an alternative to SpaceX

Will Germany be famous for its rockets one day for its vehicles? Startups dream of competing with American firm SpaceX in the race to develop mini-launchers, the future “taxis” in space that carry small satellites.

At the end of July, the Bavarian company Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA) managed to ignite for the first time, in 8 seconds, its rocket engine “RFA One”, at the Kiruna test site in Sweden.

Its “staged combustion” system, used by SpaceX (Elon Musk) and Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos) rockets, but not published in Europe, “allows 30% more payload to be put into orbit”, assured by Jörn Spurmann, operational director of RFA.

Another start-up in the sector, HyImpulse, based in Baden-Württemberg, also tested its prototype rocket engine for more than 20 seconds in May in the Shetland Islands (Scotland), using fuel based on .. .candle wax, supposed to burn very quickly for a good performance.

“Our technology is advanced enough to serve the small launcher market,” said HyImpulse co-founder Christian Schmierer, 33.

A third actor, Isar Aerospace, near Munich, is still waiting to conduct the first test on the machine.

But it is the best funded of the three with a bouquet of investors including fund HV Capital, Swiss bank Lombard Odier and the Porsche SE holding company. Among others, they brought in more than 150 million euros to this startup managed by engineers in their early thirties. Its first “Spectrum” rocket flight is expected in 2022.

Low cost space

These projects make Germany one of the most serious contenders in the competition opened by the announced departure of the market for satellites to observe the Earth and cover the Internet needs of machines or connected cars.

The market should reach “more than 30 billion euros by 2027 – including nearly 10 billion euros for small and medium -sized satellites” ordered by private or institutional customers, Isar Aerospace provides.

“The big rocket is the main bus line that drops off its passengers at the same stop, while a micro-launcher will work like a taxi, placing satellites at the exact location the customer wants”, explains Christian Schmierer, boss of HyImpulse.

These satellites of several hundred kilograms are like hand luggage compared to the loads of more than 10 tons sent into space by the Ariane rocket, the spear of European space.

The smallest of these would be “10 cm square boxes weighing 1 kilogram and rotating at 28,000 km/h around the world”, explains Daniel Metzler, founding boss of Isar Aerospace.

All while aiming for lower prices: “eventually we will be able to load 1.3 tons of equipment for an invoice price of 5 million euros, or 3,850 euros per kilogram, cheaper than the competition”, we assure in RFA.

A “Fordist” moment?

The three German startups are ultimately betting on a fleet of 20 to 40 rockets, which will be partially reusable and that will ensure dozens of take-offs each year.

Automotive subcontractors, looking for outlets as the years of production of internal combustion engines are counted, will be able to join the sector by providing rocket engine parts.

“We wanted to create the + Henry Ford + moment for space travel,” assured Jörn Spurmann, referring to the American industrialist who changed the methods of vehicle making.

But Germany is far from alone in the range of this profitable market. In addition to SpaceX, which is already putting mini-satellites into orbit and collaborating with NASA, the American company Rocket Lab is also among the pioneers and has already conducted the first commercial flights.

China and Europe are also active with half a dozen credible projects, particularly in Spain and the United Kingdom.

“The question of the reliability of each economic model will be central in the next 3 to 5 years”, predicts Carla Filotico, associated with German consulting firm Spacetec.

In the aftermath of “a likely sector merger” that leaves some players on the sidelines.

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