Dark, the French start-up that is “launched” to conquer the space industry

Do you think it’s possible to launch a rocket from an airplane in flight? The answer is yes and the creators of the French start-up Dark intend to establish themselves as a world reference in the area of ​​orbit, but also in the recovery of space debris.

French start-up Dark, founded in July 2021 by engineers Clyde Laheyne and Guillaume Orvain, plans in the near future to be able to send rockets or satellites into the orbit of planes in midair. Thus, they would be freed from the constraint of launch pads and would greatly reduce launch costs. His desire for innovation doesn’t stop there, as Dark’s vocation is not just to send satellites into space, but also to bring them back from the latter. Recently, the new company managed to raise five million dollars in a few days thanks to the support of several investors.

If the idea of ​​these space launchers already exists on the US side, where Virgin Orbit, a company specializing in launching small satellites from the air, is headquartered, Dark would be a precursor in Europe. The French start-up’s space ambitions are great, especially at a time of the space race in which the richest personalities on the planet are engaged. Despite leaving the mystery behind the origin of his start-up’s name for now, Clyde Laheyne, co-founder of Dark, answered our questions about his innovative project.

Having rockets launched from the air means that we are able to explore the most current mega infrastructure on the planet, which are airports.

What is Dark?

Dark is a space transport company and, like any other company, its wealth is its distribution network. We have two particularities: we use air-launched launchers and multi-mission launchers. Having rockets launched from the air means that we are able to exploit the most up-to-date mega infrastructure on the planet which are airports. This allows us to deal with Europe’s entire hidden space launch supply chain today. The releases are in the Amazon, the Arctic Circle or Russia currently. Regarding the multi-mission side, it should be noted that historically large launchers operated at negligible program costs compared to launch costs. It was here that Space X appeared. Elon Musk was able to split the launch costs by spreading them across multiple players.

How do you try to stand out?

As far as we are concerned, we have a very high system approach. We felt that since we are selling the service, we needed to find a way to amortize the program costs. That’s why today we produce a launcher that attacks multiple markets, which means that putting the payload into orbit is just part of our activities. Several things are very beneficial to this approach: First, we are orbiting and deorbiting. We’re also going to look for things in space. Second, we are more economically viable because the people we hire are able to perform a variety of different activities. Third, above all, it allows us to be resilient to any changes in the satellite market.

We must succeed in finding an industrial medium today that allows the entire French and European industrial satellite ecosystem to develop and create something as virtuous as SpaceX could be in the United States.

Being able to send small satellites when we want, how we want and at low cost helps governments and industry to develop. We must succeed in finding an industrial medium today that allows the entire French and European industrial satellite ecosystem to develop and create something as virtuous as SpaceX could be in the United States. The problem in France and Europe is that we are captive to launch windows and the choice of launchers, because many depart from the Amazon or the Arctic Circle. Darkness is valuable as we move from above-ground geostationary activities with very large satellites located at a great distance, to smaller satellites being launched in greater numbers to create satellite constellations. The need to constantly renovate and place new facilities in the space is clearly qualified.

How did the idea for Dark come about?

The idea for Dark comes from our respective origins with Guillaume Orvain. We met at MBDA Missil Systems. We were missile operators there and we had an excellent career with very good progress that allowed us to move into technical subjects with very high potential. At a certain point, we wanted to emancipate ourselves from the big manufacturers in a more motivating technical project. So we decided to create our own technical project, and that’s when we became entrepreneurs. Neither Guillaume nor I are entrepreneurs at heart, we were lucky enough to meet our current investors (Eurazeo, Frst and Kima Ventures) because we managed to raise five million dollars in just a few days. We started 6 months ago when we were just two, now we are 12 years old and we have offices in Paris. We will certainly open branches on all continents.

Dark founders Clyde Laheyne and Guillaume Orvain

How do you see the use of this technology?

In our eyes, a good transport company is judged by the wealth of its distribution network. If in France we continue to use the Post Office more than UPS, there is a reason, the Post Office distribution continues to be better. Our vision is that by the end of the decade we will be a fully distributed space transport company that not only puts satellites into orbit, but also searches for them. One of the critical capabilities the planet will lack in the future is managing space, not just filling it. There is a lot of space in space, but the fact is that we only occupy a small part of it located directly above us. In terms of distance from Earth, the ISS is just one Paris-Clermont Ferrand away from us (400 km). Satellites are usually placed between 500 and 800 km above the planet. When we talk about clutter in space, it just means that everyone is crowding into one place and the location of objects in space is not so precise. So there are fears of chain collisions.

By 2040, we would like to be able to carry out space and planetary transport in a fully democratized and integrated way with human activity.

So it’s a challenge for us to be able to develop a capability to remove debris or satellites. By 2030, we want to be the most widely distributed international capability for orbiting and deorbiting. So, by 2040, we would like to be able to carry out space and planetary transport in a fully democratized and integrated way with human activity. The aim will be to allow the planet to manage 100% of its activity in space.

Are you a French team or an international team?

We are a team of 12. We are keeping as few as possible at this time. We rely heavily on the skills of the people we recruit, all of whom have more than 5 or 10 years of experience. We favor “star” individuals in their fields. By the end of the year, we will normally have passed a major milestone in the preliminary design phase. We will be able to go into development and open 50 or 60 vacancies that we will seek to fill again with “stars” at ESA (European Space Agency), at Ariane, at CNES (National Center for Space Studies), at American or Indian companies. companies.

We realized that if we really wanted the best in the world, we would have to internationalize

We are an international company, we have done more than half of our recruitments abroad. Among the countries represented are the United States, Brazil, Spain, the United Kingdom and Germany, currently. We very quickly felt this need to be international. We realized that if we really wanted the best in the world, we would have to open up internationally because France occupies this particular segment of rockets still operating with solid propellants. From a technological point of view, we needed people who had experienced very recent rocket developments, while France has developed two in the last 40 years.

Is there an added value of French know-how in this sector?

There is, in fact, real added value to French know-how in many ways. France has significant scientific knowledge when it comes to launchers. Industrial skills can only be acquired if an industry similar to the one we seek to develop already exists. To find profiles that might interest us, companies that produce multi-mission air-launched launchers would have to exist. Such multi-mission launchers do not yet exist, and only Virgin Orbit has made air-launched launchers where the best profiles can be found. We have a very technical architecture specific to our product. Anyone can develop the components we use, but no one has assembled them together.

Dark Space Enterprise Rocket

What are the different challenges of launching a project like this, especially in Europe?

Many people often mistakenly think pitchers are political affairs. I think there was a kind of misunderstanding about how to create a sovereign or autonomous capacity for a country or an institution. Dark’s commitment to the future must be to be a business. Our commitment to France and European countries is to be able to carry out competitive launches with Space X prices from the territory, breaking your entire current supply chain. That is our only objective. All the work of lobbying institutions and politicians is useless, because being forced to lobby means that there is a shell on what you are trying to do. There is a very antagonistic side to trying to pursue political arrangements, whereas when a business is autonomous, divisive and profitable, all investors logically jump on it. So we’re focused on the one commitment we need to make: creating something sovereign and competitive with Space X for everyone.

What sets you apart from American players in this field?

We are the only player to develop a rocket that is not only capable of collecting debris, but whose economic sustainability does not depend solely on the satellite market.

How far do you project yourself into the future?

Dark develops some of the most anticipated technologies in the field of aeronautical defense (space traffic integration, fuel cryogenics, stage reuse, debris removal, etc.). We have this project to create the spaceship of 2040.

Do you believe in expatriation in space?

I am an optimist and an idealist with a hint of physical skepticism. Today, I find it difficult to design good for the human species. But I think we have to trust future generations, we still don’t know the best space applications. On the other hand, we can lead the way and that’s what Dark does.

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