Space launchers: the war for European start-ups is declared

No truce. Not even during the prestigious International Astronautical Congress (IAC), which brought together in Paris everything that the space sector has industrialists, specialists and investors, and which closes its doors this Thursday, September 22. The day before, the Spanish PLD Space announced that it had successfully passed a ground engine test that would pave the way to the stars for its microlaunch. Perfect synchronization and a signal sent to all other competitors in the European race for microlaunchers, these small rockets capable of sending a payload ranging from a few tens to a few hundred kilograms into low orbit. A marathon with obstacles in which the German start-ups Isar Aerospace and RFA (Rocket Factory Augsburg) gave a good advantage, starting in the first and benefiting from significant investments that mix public and private. A race within a race in reality, as American space start-ups have already taken a solid lead over the group European.

In total, more than 200 startups around the world are working to develop their micro launchers. SpaceX obliges, these rocket projects almost all bet on the reuse of New Space companies, as industry experts say, on which a rain of money has been poured. In 2021 alone, they raised $2.5 billion, while most of them are still in the testing phase! A revolution that it would not be an exaggeration to call Copernican, when for decades access to space was exclusive to some great powers (United States, Europe and Russia). Sign of the times, a true ecosystem is being created around these companies that dream of stars. “For several years now, we have seen the creation of spaceports all over the planet to accommodate these micro-launchers”, underlines Sita Sonty, director of BCG and specialist in space issues. Even more eloquent: Diamant 1, Kourou’s historic launch pad, will undergo major works to be able to accommodate multiple micro-launchers. A first envelope of 50 million euros has already been released.

If small private rockets swarm like mushrooms after an autumn rain, it’s because the demand for access to space has never been more pressing. According to Euroconsult’s latest report, 1700 satellites are expected to be launched each year during this decade. “The needs have never been greater: more and more applications require real-time tracking via GPS, Earth observation is becoming strategic, mainly to measure carbon emissions, not to mention the need for connectivity, with constellations that allow to provide high high-speed internet anywhere on the planet”, explains Sita Sonty.

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“There is also a question of sovereignty: more and more countries want to have their own launcher so that they no longer depend on the United States or Europe to access space”, points out François Chopard, founder of Starburst, one of the largest startup accelerators in the world. aerospace ups and ambassador of the France 2030 plan for the space sector. Another big advantage, these small launchers could reduce waiting time before boarding. “Today, when you have a satellite to put in orbit, it’s not uncommon to wait a year before finding an available space on a launcher like Ariane. What we suggest is taking a taxi instead of waiting to catch the bus”, he explains. Sylvain Bataillard, co-founder of HyPrSpace, a French start-up that has developed an innovative, less expensive and greener hybrid propulsion technology, and which aims to carry out a first large-scale test take-off in 2025.

In search of a viable economic model

If technology seems to be advancing rapidly, the question of the business model remains: aren’t micro or mini launchers too small, precisely, to be able to offer competitive prices? “We often talk about the windfall of the thousands of small satellites that will have to be launched in the next few years, especially for the constellations. per cluster through heavy launchers such as Ariane 6 or Falcon 9″, guarantees an expert in the sector, who believes that small launchers will be confined to a niche market that should represent at most 10% of signed contracts. This would explain the choice of American Rocket Lab, the only start-up to regularly fly its Electron rocket, to develop a much heavier launcher: the Neutron. The latter will be able to place 8 tons in low orbit (compared to 200 kg for the current rocket) and thus place several satellites at the same time.

French space Maïa, for its part, hopes to have found the perfect balance, with a load capacity of 500 kg in the reusable version and over a ton in the consumable version (when the first stage is not recovered as is). is the case of Ariane rockets). “Maia is, in a way, an intermediate rocket between micro-launchers and heavy launchers, which allows us to have the flexibility of a start-up and to have a much larger market segment than our competitors”, guarantees the executive president. by Maïa Space, Yohann Leroy . This 100% subsidiary of ArianeGroupe, which will bring investors in 2023, also aims to pioneer reusable technology in order to allow European launchers to master this technology. “Which does not mean that the successor to the Ariane 6 is necessarily reusable, but it is important to have the choice”, underlines Yohann Leroy, who hopes to fly in Maia until 2025/26.

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But doesn’t the full development of pocket launchers by the Member States run the risk of jeopardizing the European space project centered on the Ariane and Vega launch families? This is the growing fear of some experts, especially on the French side. “You don’t have to be a great cleric to understand that the Germans are pushing their start-ups to the limit to have their own launcher, with the secret hope of getting rid of the European space industry: they consider the model to be out of breath and not supports the French leadership more”, points out a good expert in the archive. “It’s ridiculous on their part: it’s precisely by standing together that we can hope to resist the SpaceX steamroller,” annoys a French space executive. SpaceX boss Elon Musk must be enjoying the show…


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