Today’s Global Microlaunch Mindset: Flexible, Greener, Cheaper, and Safer

Smallsats increasingly define the commercial space launch market, with a desire for independent access to space driving a new push by small launchers around the world.

The number of small satellites orbiting to space worldwide tripled from 2019 to 2020, with smallsats representing 94 percent of spacecraft launched that year, according to Statista and Bryce Tech’s Smallsats by the Numbers 2021 report.

In an uncertain funding climate, dozens of international small launch companies are racing to prove out their rockets and business models. Most offer rides for payloads with masses below 500 kilograms. Many are targeting the sweet spot of under 200 kilograms. They face stiff competition from established launch giants from SpaceX to Arianespace, which have debuted offerings to support the massive constellation launch market, with lower-priced ridesharing programs to attract these smallsat customers.

“For years we have been talking about dedicated small access for small satellites through micro-small launchers. The reality is small launchers need small satellites but smallsats do not always need a small launcher,” says Maxime Puteaux, Euroconsult principal advisor.

Euroconsult estimates that 12,000 satellites under 100 kilograms will be launched over the next decade, and the large launch providers are already pivoting to meet that explosive demand. SpaceX has a dedicated rideshare program that touts rides for as low as $1 million for 200 kilogram payloads with assurances of schedule certainty (flights to space every four months) and contract flexibility. Arianespace began offering rideshares on its Vega rocket in September 2020, and now startups and other commercial satellite operators have secured slots on Vega’s rideshare mission.

“Over the last five years there’s been a strong push to have more diversity in the launch industry – it’s come from a variety of places to try and fill the smallsat gap,” observes NSR consultant Dallas Kasaboski, who analyzes the satellite constellation market.

Kasaboski says the United States, China, Israel, India, and France dominate with the leading launch market share, but many other countries hope to win market share as customers seek more frequent and more flexible launch options.

“Our overall picture is that established players are going to take most of the market. They have the capabilities, the financial means and the technology and it’s ready and proven. But there is growing diversity in the market from these other players,” he says.

NSR has identified key launch customer requirements in the smallsat arena – chief among them, cost and availability. Other requirements include a supportive ecosystem that includes favorable launch regulations and government backing. “Almost anything in the satellite and space industry starts with government support,” Kasaboski notes.

Puteaux predicts the market opportunity for microlaunchers will not grow exponentially and this is why these smallsat-focused firms expand to support larger vehicles to expand their addressable market. At the same time, he notes that in a very short time the medium and heavy sector has pivoted to address the small constellation market.

Here are a number of global smallsat launchers looking to make their mark in the competitive environment. These players from Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and Spain share how they differentiate themselves in a market dominated by well-entrenched global players.

Rendering of Isar’s Spectrum launch vehicle on the launch pad.Isar Aerospace

Germany Spurs Innovation Through Microlauncher Competition

In Germany, three companies — Isar Aerospace, Rocket Factory Augsburg, and HyImpulse — are competing for government support for their rocket program.

Funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWI), the competition was designed and run by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the European Space Agency (ESA), respectively. The prize: the chance to win 25 million euros ($28 million) to develop and prove out their rocket designs in exchange for giving DLR and the German smallsat industry launch opportunities.

Earlier this year, Isar Aerospace won the first round with 11 million euros ($12 million) and now Rocket Factory Augsburg and HyImpulse are competing for the next award.

“DLR supports the creation of commercial launch companies through competition. They’re trying to accelerate development of an in-country commercial launch capability for smallsats. Most of the funding and risk is supported by the private sector,” observes Puteaux.

Stella Guillen, Isar Aerospace’s chief commercial officer, says the first award locked in the German government as the firm’s first institutional customer, along with other commercial customers such as Airbus Defence and Space, which signed with Isar last April.

To date, the company has secured $180 million in total funding, including a recently concluded Series B+ funding round. Isar plans to conduct the first test flight for Spectrum, its two-stage launch vehicle with a payload capability of up to 1,000 kilograms, in the end of 2022 from Norway. Guillen says Isar will offer dedicated, lead, and rideshare options with a target payload price of 10,000 euros per kilogram ($11,000).

“There’s no hidden on-tops. Our price includes all costs,” she says.

The company’s “pragmatic engineering approach” relies on 3D printing and automated manufacturing as well as a simplified design to reduce the cost of launch. Isar also is highly vertically integrated, a structure that will enable it to offer “cost-effective launch prices and technological independence,” Guillen says.

“We are the only company in the German market that holds the entire value chain inhouse, from design software and design know-how to production and test facilities. Since we own the design and development, we can respond to our clients’ needs or requirement changes in the most flexible way,” she says.

Like many smallsat launch firms, Isar is using liquid oxygen and propane – “clean” propulsion to minimize environmental impact.

HyImpulse candle wax motor test.HyImpulse

The German launch startup with perhaps the most unique propulsion system is HyImpulse, which is powering its solid-fuel rocket with hybrid propulsion systems made from paraffin, an industrial-grade candle wax that has chemical features of kerosene when it combusts.

“We have the same energy and the same performance of the rocket propellants, but we have much less complexity in the system,” says co-CEO Christian Schmierer.

This simpler design allows HyImpulse to use fewer components and subsystems. Also, since the rocket is powered by inert solid fuel, “It can burn but will not explode,” explains Schmierer, who contends that this less volatile fuel translates to more safety and less risk of damage to launch pads, which could affect launch schedules.

The company intends to grow from 60 to 100 employees once HyImpulse complete its Series A funding round planned in the next six months. Its targeting suborbital launch in mid-2022, followed by orbital flight by the end of 2023.

Schmierer notes that Germany and France have long been rocket motor technology leaders in Europe, but with more players entering the field, “it’s more important than ever to keep this technology alive in the country. Everyone is very happy there are three German startups in this field now developing new propulsion systems,” he says.

Skyrora team with erected Skylark L vehicle.Skyrora

Eco-Friendly Skyrora Eyes 16 Launches Daily by 2030

Germany isn’t the only European nation keen to position itself as a smallsat launch leader. The United Kingdom space market is looking for its launch capabilities through firms such as Edinburgh-based Skyrora. The company has been developing commercial launch vehicles for small satellites since 2017 and uses Ecosene fuel, produced from plastic waste, for its 3D-printed engine components.

The firm successfully conducted 100 static engine firing tests of its three-stage Skyrora XL launch vehicle in November 2020, confirming that it was ready for launch as early as 2023. A key feature of the company’s third-stage LEO engine is it can reignite numerous times to deliver payloads into different altitudes and phases, providing a taxi service of sorts. “This service sets the engine apart from its competitors,” says Katie Miller, head of communications and engagement at Skyrora.

In October 2021, Skyrora secured an agreement to conduct multiple launches from the Saxavord Spaceport in Unst, Scotland, the northernmost Shetland Island. The agreement will enable Skyrora to achieve its target of 16 launches per year by 2030, according to the company.

The demo launch of Skyrora XL is expected to take place as early as 2023 and will deploy payloads weighing up to 315 kilograms into Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO), as well as Polar Orbit.

Skyrora XL’s encapsulated payload module is assembled as a standalone system from the launch vehicle, allowing it to better meet customer requirements during installation, maintenance and operation. The vehicle’s first and second stages are powered by a cluster of 3D-printed Skyforce engines, which Miller explained allows it to achieve “significantly higher thrust levels than a singular engine.”

“From a design perspective, components produced through a 3D printer will weigh lighter than products manufactured using traditional methods, which is why we have chosen to incorporate additive manufacturing into our design process,” she adds.

Rendering of the Gilmour Space Eris rocket.Gilmour Space

Down Under, Gilmour Space Embraces Lower Cost Hybrid Technologies

Australian launch services company Gilmour Space conducted its first test rocket in mid-2016. Since that time, it has become Australia’s largest sovereign space company with over 100 employees in its Gold Coast, Queensland, rocket facility. The company is developing the Eris rocket.

The company has raised 88 million Australian dollars ($64 million) to date, making it the largest venture-capital funded space company in Australia. With more than 300 test fires conducted ranging from 5 to 91 kilonewtons of thrust, Gilmour Space “is demonstrating leadership in lower-cost hybrid rocket technologies that are also safer and greener than conventional rockets,” says CEO Adam Gilmour.

In the past year, the company has signed launch contracts and agreements with companies like Momentus in the United States, Exolaunch in Germany, and Fleet Space, Space Machines Company, and DEWC in Australia. Gilmour Space has a Space Act Agreement with NASA, as well as other technology/research-related agreements with SpaceLink, Northrop Grumman, several Australian universities and the Defence Science Technology Group.

Gilmour emphasizes competing against the SpaceXs of the world will not be based on cost per kilogram but on cost per dedicated launch.

“Small satellite customers are our primary customers; and our mission is to provide them access to more affordable launch services that will give them more control over where, when and how they can launch their small satellite or payload to space,” he says.

In addition to launch vehicles, Gilmour Space is developing a new G-class satellite bus, called the G-Sat, to help extend its customers’ access to space.

“At the end of the day, smallsat customers are looking for launch providers that can offer them more options in terms of launch costs, placement, schedule, frequency and service, and that choice is what we aim to provide with our launch services from Australia,” Gilmour says.

The PLD Space team with the MUIRA-1 rocket.PLD Space

Reusability a Key Focus for Spain’s PLD Space

PLD Space in Spain is gearing up for the suborbital launch of MIURA I, its reusable suborbital rocket, in mid-2022. The firm was founded in 2011 and has been working on the initial design of MIURA 1, which serves as a suborbital launcher and technology demonstrator, since 2014. MIURA 5, its orbital microlauncher, will ideally serve 300 kg payloads and is designed to do 15 orbital flight missions a year.

The company closed a $28 million Series B investment round at the end of 2021, bringing total capital raised to more than $50 million.

Raúl Torres, PLD Space CEO said the MIURA 1 launch is expected for the second half of 2022. The rocket is designed to reach a maximum altitude of 150 kilometers and with the capacity to carry a payload of up to 100 kilograms. MIURA 5 is scheduled to rocket into orbit in July 2024, with plans underway to introduce a reusable version of its rocket.

Torres says the launch market is ripe for small orbiter service providers, given that traditional rocket providers can’t keep pace with the demand and are designed to launch traditional satellites weighing several tons. “The growth in the demand for small satellite launch services shows that the current range of launch services will not be capable of covering such demand in the next decade.”

Torres emphasizes that there is a clear business opportunity for new players that can offer launch services for small satellites.

“We’re convinced that a small-scale rocket such as MIURA 1 and MIURA 5 is the most efficient, flexible and effective way, both in cost and time, of launching small satellites into space,” he says.

C6 completes a full-scale orbital engine firing in April 2021.C6 Launch

Canada’s C6 Launch Systems Emphasizes Simple Design, Multiple Launch Points

With a tagline of “small payloads – on time and on target,” Toronto-based C6 Launch Systems, a rocket company strictly focused on the under-100 kilogram payload market, has continued to focus on simplicity in design while leveraging existing technology to keep costs down.

C6 Launch’s 13-meter high two-stage rocket has an adaptive payload plate to support multiple configurations for payloads up to 16U. The deployer is pre-budgeted as part of launch costs for C6 customers.

“It’s a simple design as far as rockets go. We’re using kerosene and standard materials, and not pushing the envelope very far,” says Richard McCammon, president and CEO, an engineering-educated serial entrepreneur.

Unlike some launchers that are built from scratch, C6 is leveraging existing technology combined with in-house design efforts. “We have a very smart crew in many disciplines, so that we can develop where it’s necessary,” he says.

The microlauncher achieved a single full-engine burn within a single year in April 2021. Conducted at Spaceport America’s vertical launch area in New Mexico, the systems integration engine test validated C6 Launch’s avionics, engine control, ground control and communications subsystems.

“One year is incredibly fast. Others have taken upwards of three years,” says McCammon, who credits C6’s expert crew and the use of proven technology. “We have a really focused crew that is good at what they do. We don’t cut corners, but we do things quickly. We’re looking at different options that allow us to keep our costs low and provide a better service to customers.”

McCammon is betting on multiple launch options, and in November obtained its license to launch from Brazil, with launch rights already secured from the U.K.’s Icelandic airspace and waters and SaxaVord Spaceport in Scotland.

Government Backing, Funding and Differentiated Services are Key to Closing the Business Case

Clearly, there is no shortage of innovation and excitement among international launch players looking to offer more cost-effective and flexible rides to Low-Earth Orbit in the next few years. But even with momentum strong, especially in parts of Europe and North America, global microlaunch firms must compete for limited investment dollars and take on well-entrenched launch players.

“It’s a very fractured market, and funding is very challenging,” says Kasaboski, emphasizing that smaller country-level launch firms will not be able to compete on price with global players, but will need to find service gaps. Government support will be critical.

The key, says Euroconsult’s Puteaux, is understanding what the smaller satellite players want and to build the business case to meet the demand with a more agile launcher.

“A good part of winning is having access to the government demand, which is actually captive to them,” he explains. “It’s also important to understand that small satellite doesn’t mean small launcher. When you see it from a small satellite perspective, there are plenty of ways to reach space, either on a small, dedicated launcher or a heavy one with a last-mile delivery space tug, where you get your payload delivered quickly, or via a rideshare.”

With prices likely to go down even with most capable launch solutions, Puteaux says smaller international launch firms need to adapt quickly and focus on what they can offer.

“Everything will align with the value you’ll be able to deliver,” he says. VS

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