Spain’s launch startups make a case for hosting a European spaceport

by

BREMEN, Germany — With three companies developing dedicated small-satellite launchers, Spain is establishing itself as Europe’s NewSpace rocket hub. Although none of the three have launched their first rocket, that’s not stopping them from making the case that Spain should build a spaceport.

Raul Torres, co-founder and CEO of PLD Space, which is shooting for a 2019 launch of its suborbital demonstrator Arion 1, said his Elche, Spain-based company is seeing increasing support from the Spanish government. The country’s government is working on a space law and will likely consider establishing a spaceport, Torres said during a presentation at Space Tech Expo Europe here.

Spain, a member state of the European Space Agency as well as the European Union, would thus stand to  go head to head with the United Kingdom, which plans to start operating  a domestic spaceport by 2020.

“We need another launch site in Europe [other] than the French Guiana” site, Torres told SpaceNews. “We need another, different place where to launch to polar orbits and that possible location should be in Europe.”

Europe launches its Ariane 5, Vega and Europeanized Soyuz rockets from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana, a French overseas department on South America’s northeastern coast.

Spain’s launch startups appear to be on track to have at least one working small sat launcher ready in the early 2020s and, as Torres said, Spain’s sunny weather suits not only sun-bathing but also launching rockets.

“We would definitely like to operate from Spain,” Torres said. “If we can find somewhere with 300 sunny days over the year, that would be great. We are looking at suitable locations in some of the Spanish islands that could meet our requirements.”

Guillaume Girard, chief commercial officer at Zero2Infinity, one of PLD Space’s competitors, said in his presentation during a session on small satellite launchers here that the company is looking at the possibility to operate from a base in the Canary Islands, a Spain-owned archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean off the north-African coast.

Zero2Infinity of Barcelona, Spain, expects to use a boat to deploy its balloon-launched rockets. Girard said the company has collected letters of interest from prospective customers that would be worth 1 million euros if converted to contracts.

The third Spanish contender, Celestia Aerospace of Barcelona, which did not present at the Space Tech Expo Europe, is developing an air-launch rocket carried aloft by an airplane.

Although all three companies are competing for the same customer base, Torres sees it as an advantage that Spain has such a strong launcher cluster.

“I think it’s a strength that there are so many of us,” he said. “We can push the government together to develop regulations.”

PLD Space, which Torres said is 25 percent funded by the Spanish government, is currently “working on a really big round of investment” that will enable the company to manufacture and test three Arion 1 suborbital launchers in 2018. In 2019, the company hopes to conduct two test flights. If all goes well, the firm will launch its first commercial suborbital flight by the end of 2019.

“The rocket will carry about 100kg of research payload,” Torres said. “We are negotiating with some clients and also with brokers who want to offer suborbital flight opportunities in Europe.”

The company, which two months ago successfully tested its 7,400-pound-thrust kerosene and liquid oxygen rocket engine, aims for the first test launch of its orbital launcher Arion 2 in 2021.

Germany also has a stake in the smallsat launcher race. An EU-funded project called SMILE and led by the German space agency DLR is developing technology that would enable launching payloads of up to 115 kilograms from a European territory.

However, Markus Kuhn, DLR project manager for SMILE ,said the team is struggling to attract sufficient funding.

According to Maxime Puteaux, an analyst at Paris-based Euroconsult who moderated the panel, 2017 has already seen more small satellites launched than the previous five years combined.

Sixty percent of the demand is coming from the United States with San Francisco-based Planet being the biggest customer, Puteaux said. Euroconsult expects to see a seven-fold growth in the small satellite launch market in the coming decade, with the market expected to be worth $14.5 billion over the next decade.

Ninety-two percent of the forecasted demand, Puteaux said, will come from the U.S. and Asia. In spite of that, Torres believes there will be room for two to three smallsat launcher operators in Europe.