It is hard to believe that it is in one of these small laboratories, at the end of a long corridor, that an important game for Europe is being played in the space exploration market, which is open to everything. But it is here, inside the Bordeaux Technowest incubator, a lost building at the end of the runways at Bordeaux-Mérignac airport (Gironde), that the German-Bordeaux start-up The Exploration Company (TEC) is designing part Nyx, a reusable space capsule – in Space X’s Crew Dragon style.
This capsule will be used primarily as a cargo ship to supply space stations and lunar bases. And, “today, a vehicle like that does not exist in Europe”, explains Hélène Huby, founder and director of the start-up, who recalls that the European Space Agency “interrupted the ATV program that supplied the International Space Station [ISS] “.
The other space vehicles must, so far, be sought on the Russian side with Soyuz, Chinese with Thianzou or American with, in addition to Crew Dragon, Starliner and Cygnus. “The Exploration Company’s contribution is unique and will allow Europe to get back in the game in terms of space cargo flights,” announced Nouvelle-Aquitaine Region President Alain Rousset. It is, therefore, a strategic undertaking. »
A demonstrator on the maiden flight of Ariane 6
Like Space X, The Exploration Company is growing and learning very quickly. Eighteen months after its creation, the space logistics company has grown from three to fifty people, and is already finalizing its first Bikini demonstrator that will embark on the inaugural flight of Ariane 6. Winner of an award launched by the European Space Agency, the A start -up is one of the seven companies selected for this long-awaited flight, scheduled for the end of the year. “We are even the youngest startup selected by the space agency to fly on Ariane 6”, highlights the manager.
Designed in just nine months and for €500,000, this atmospheric re-entry demonstrator will board the empty Ariane 6, then launch into space before returning to Earth… and sinking to the bottom of the ocean. The demonstrator will therefore not be retrieved. The interest of this mission? Equipped with electronics, the capsule will allow retrieving a series of data during its re-entry phase: measurements of acceleration, orientation, temperature, etc. It will also make it possible to test the thermal protection material used, a very high-performance cork and resin aggregate.
“The capsule heats up enormously when entering the atmosphere, so we installed sensors to discover the effectiveness of this protection”, explains Sébastien Reichstadt, propulsion manager and co-founder of the company. “All this data will allow us to improve the following capsules regarding atmospheric re-entry, one of the technically most difficult phases to master,” continues Hélène Huby, an ENA graduate who has worked for Airbus Defense and Space.
Launched price of 25,000 euros per kilo
And then ? Everything must happen very quickly. Starting in 2024, The Exploration Company will send a second vehicle into space, Mission Impossible, much larger (around 2.5 meters in diameter), and that will carry around 300 kg of equipment. “It has already been fully booked by Cnes and by the German and European space agencies”, emphasizes Hélène Huby. Mission Impossible will board the Space X rocket this time, “but we are a launcher agnostic, that is, we are compatible with Indian, European and American launchers, insists Hélène Huby. This gives us a variety of options to start with. »
It will then be the turn of the Nyx vehicles – Nyx Earth in 2026 and Nyx Moon in 2028 – to leave the company’s workshops. We will then move on to the recoverable capsules, four meters in diameter. The marketing of Nyx Earth, which will be able to send payloads and remain in Earth orbit for up to six months before returning to Earth, has already begun.
For the lunar rover, “we will reuse the same parts as the ground rover, adding cryogenic engines that we are developing in New Aquitaine. It will have the capacity to go to lunar stations and land on the Moon, including to make point to point on the moon. For this lunar version, the start-up is developing a liquid-powered engine to land on the moon and take off again, with green propellant based on biomethane, which will be unprecedented. “We also integrated many electrical and electronic components into this engine to control the operation of the engine and be able to reuse it by analyzing its behavior”, adds Sébastien Reichstadt.
Server farms in space
The Exploration Company targets three main destinations: space stations around the Earth, the station around the Moon (lunar portal) and the lunar surface. “We’ll have to transport everything related to the astronauts’ experiences, their food, spare parts for the stations…”, lists Hélène Huby.
But the start-up’s future customers won’t just be space agencies. “There are also five private space stations under development and very interested in buying payloads from us. Some will be used, for example, to place server farms in space, to allow tens or even hundreds of thousands of tomorrow’s space objects to do their math. on site, from a perspective of greater security. The most advanced of these stations is Axiom Space, whose biggest customer is Amazon. Then we’ll send building materials and rovers to the moon. »
Question price, “we are aiming for a marketing price of 25,000 euros per kilo launched, announces Hélène Huby, in comparison, taking cargo to the International Space Station and lowering costs by around 100,000 euros per kilo. Our entry price is therefore 25% lower than the competition today, which is made possible by our upfront approach and reuse technology. »
Manned flights for space tourism
To fulfill its missions, the vehicle will have to “dock” at the stations, again with a lock on departure, because the technology “has not yet been mastered in Europe”, emphasizes Hélène Huby. “But we are among the winners of an ESA contract to start developing this docking technology. »
The start-up finally wants to offer manned flights for space tourism. “But getting humans on board is a bit more complex, and that will be a later step. »