Isar Aerospace wins a 10 million euro launch competition from the European Commission
WASHINGTON — Isar Aerospace has won 10 million euros ($11.3 million) in a European Union prize competition, the latest sign of the EU’s growing role in supporting Europe’s launch industry .
At the 14th European Space Conference in Brussels on January 25, Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner whose portfolio includes space, announced that Munich-based company Isar Aerospace had won the European Council’s Horizon Prize. innovation for its low-cost space launch. Isar is developing a small launcher called Spectrum with first launch scheduled for late 2022 at the earliest.
Isar was one of three finalists for the award announced earlier this month by the European Commission, along with another German developer of small launchers, Rocket Factory Augsburg, and Spanish company Payload Aerospace, which is working on a small reusable launcher. Those three came from an initial pool or more than 15 applicants, Breton said during a ceremony at the conference to announce the winner.
“It’s a big, big deal for us because it shows, first of all, the maturity on our side,” Stella Guillen, chief commercial officer of Isar, said in an interview. “It shows that we are carrying out these microlauncher activities in Europe. It is also a huge sign of confidence on the part of the European Commission. It lends credibility to what we do.
The Isar had already raised more than 150 million euros to fund the development of Spectrum, a vehicle designed to place up to 1,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. The company expanded a factory to produce the rocket and set up an engine test site in Sweden.
She said the company would use the prize money to support the company’s research and development activities and infrastructure. Testing of the engines that will power Spectrum, as well as other vehicle components, is underway. This work keeps the company on schedule for a first launch from Andøya, Norway, late this year or early next year.
While Isar seeks spectrum customers worldwide, it is focused on both European government and commercial customers. “There’s a huge need for a flexible launcher that can launch multiple times, either carpool or dedicated,” Guillen said. “I think our advantage for launching outside of Europe is the European market in general.”
An increasing EU role in the launch
The European Commission has supported the efforts of small launchers like Isar despite skepticism from some players in the European space industry and some national governments about the size of the market for such vehicles.
“Small launcher solutions can offer flexibility, responsiveness and affordability,” Breton said at the awards ceremony. He predicted that the institutional demand for small launchers in Europe will increase.
“The European launcher industry, especially for micro and mini-launchers, is very promising,” he said. “We need to make sure we have microlauncher solutions in the EU”
The award to Isar Aerospace is just the latest sign of the European Commission’s growing interest in launcher development, a role traditionally left to national governments and the European Space Agency.
During a panel discussion at the January 25 conference, Paraskevi Papantoniou, Deputy Director for Space in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defence, Industry and Space, said that the commission was looking at other ways to support the industry, such as improving access to testing facilities. “We realize there are bottlenecks, so that’s something we’re looking at closely,” she said.
She said the commission had budgeted 65 million euros for space access programs in 2021 and 2022, mainly to support the development of propulsion technologies and reusability. His office is preparing a work plan for 2023 and 2024 which may require additional funding. “We want to strengthen our support a little bit around the commission’s strategic priorities,” she said, including space transportation technology and ground infrastructure.
One proposal that has received intense scrutiny is the creation of a European “launcher alliance” that would bring together established and emerging launch providers. Breton, in a speech that opened the conference, said that a formal announcement of a European Space Launcher Alliance would come soon “to define a technological roadmap and a comprehensive European approach to launchers” to support large and small vehicles.
“It’s not about creating a monopoly. It’s not about favoring certain existing players,” Papantoniou said of the alliance. Instead, she described the alliance as bringing together existing and new launch companies, as well as the public sector, “to discuss what the European vision for the future of launch should be.”
The alliance, she said, would work in cooperation with the companies and with ESA on developing a long-term roadmap for launch vehicle development. It would also meet the demand for new launchers from the public and private sectors.
The companies on the panel had mixed reactions to the alliance. “We understand how important it is for Europe to gain and maintain its leadership,” said Morena Bernardini, Vice President of Strategy at ArianeGroup. “That’s only possible if the industry pushes in one direction.”
“We’ll see what comes out of it,” said Jörn Spurmann, commercial director of Rocket Factory Augsburg. “I hope this will facilitate what we are looking for, which is a free commercial market for the institutional payloads that we have in Europe.”
Daniel Metzler, managing director of Isar Aerospace, was more skeptical. “A lot depends on how it is actually implemented. In Europe, we are extremely good at bureaucracy, unfortunately,” he said. Having an “open platform” for launch services with the European Commission as the main customer would be a good thing. But, he warned, “if we make mistakes in the processes and in the way we implement them, it could backfire.”
“We really want to be there as an honest broker,” Papantoniou said of the alliance, facilitating both small and big players. “We can be very bureaucratic in Brussels, so that’s something we have to fight against.”