A German rocket startup seeks to disrupt the European launch industry

Some space entrepreneurs in Germany believe that the European launch industry—which principally consists of the state-backed Arianespace corporation—is ripe for disruption.

The industry, they say, mirrors that of the United States more than a decade ago, before SpaceX emerged onto the scene and began to disrupt the near-monopoly held by United Launch Alliance. SpaceX successfully launched its first Falcon 1 rocket in 2008, and the company followed that with the Falcon 9 booster less than two years later. Since then, it has forced competitors to innovate and put downward pressure on launch prices.

“Europe is where the US launch industry was 15 years ago,” said Daniel Metzler, co-founder and chief executive of the Munich-based Isar Aerospace rocket company, in an interview.

If the company’s attitude seems a bit brash, seeking to challenge the existing order of the European launch industry, perhaps it is not surprising given the company’s advisors. They are led by Bulent Altan, an aerospace engineer who joined SpaceX in 2004 out of Stanford University. Atlan played a key role in the development of the avionics system that guided the Falcon 1 and later Falcon 9 rockets in flight. And he spent his pre-college years in Germany.

Founded in 2018 by a group of recent engineering graduates who had participated in a rocket research group, plus a few students still in school, Isar chose to focus first on developing an engine. Named Aquila, the engine is fueled by propane and liquid oxygen, and nine of these engines will power the first stage of the company’s “Spectrum” rocket.

With this booster, Isar intends to launch up to 1,000kg to low-Earth orbit. It has not set a price per launch, but it is targeting a competitive price point of 10,000 Euros ($11,700) per kg.

Fund, then fly

The company concluded a round of seed funding in August 2018—raising in the low millions of Euros, Metzler said—that allowed Isar to build its first test site near Munich, finalize the design of the vehicle, and begin to work on its propulsion system. Isar ramped up its fundraising in December, 2019, bringing in 17 million Euros in series A funding. This allowed the company to grow from 25 to 100 employees and build out a 4,500 sq. meter production facility. There, it seeks to build Aquila engines in weeks, rather than months, at the lowest possible cost.

In addition to ongoing fundraising efforts, Isar plans to complete a fully integrated engine test in mid-2021, and it will work toward qualifying the engine for flight by the end of 2021, Metzler said. The company is targeting 2022 for its first launch. While Isar has built its vertical engine and stage testing site at Esrange Space Center in northern Sweden, it has not picked a launch site. The company is studying locations in mainland Europe, South America, North America, and Australia.

Metzler said Europe has the capacity to support at least one commercial small satellite launcher. As designed, Spectrum would be less capable than the smallest rocket in Arianespace’s fleet, the Vega C booster. But it probably would cost about one-third of that rocket. The German government appears to be considering support of its home-grown launch industry, perhaps both in the form of a spaceport as well as launch contracts.

“Our business case is such that we will not be dependent on institutional launches, although they are very much welcome,” Metzler said. The company believes there are a growing number of European companies and other groups that will seek affordable access to space for small satellites. “For our customers, it’s a pain to go to Russia, the United States, or India for launch services.”

Listing image by Isar Aerospace

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