ESA awards €10.45 million to two UK launch startups

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VALLETTA, Malta — The European Space Agency awarded UK-based launch startups Orbex and Skyrora a combined €10.45 million ($12.35 million) to support development of competing microlaunchers.

The two support contracts announced March 24 were awarded under Boost!, an ESA program that aims to foster new commercial space transportation services. The agency adopted Boost! during Space19+, an ESA ministerial-level council meeting held in November 2019, and announced an open call for proposals last April.

Each of the two new Boost! contracts outlines specific outcomes the funding will assist the companies in achieving.

Orbital Launch Express (Orbex) is developing its two-stage Prime microlauncher which is powered by 3D-printed rocket engines and is designed to carry payloads of up 150 kilograms to low Earth orbit. The vehicle is expected to make its debut in 2022.

The €7.45 million in co-funding Orbex and its partners received is the largest Boost! award to date. The funding will be used to support the development of the Prime vehicle’s avionics, software, and guidance, navigation and control systems. 

As part of the agreement, Orbex will supplement the funding with an additional €4.7 million in private funding.

Skyrora is developing its three-stage Skyrora XL launch vehicle, which is designed to carry up to 315 kilograms to sun-synchronous and polar orbits up to 1,000 kilometers above Earth. At 23 meters, the XL is the larger of the two vehicles and is slated for its maiden flight in 2022.

The €3 million in Boost! funding awarded to Skyrora will be utilized to qualify the liquid-fueled rocket engine that powers the XL’s first and second stages, which includes fully integrated static fire tests.

During the 2019 ministerial-level council meeting at which Boost! was adopted, the United Kingdom pledged £12 million to the program, one of the largest from an ESA member state. The funding was intended to not only assist developing launch providers in the UK but also the creation of highly skilled jobs.

“Today’s funding for two of our most innovative space businesses is not only a step forward for UK spaceflight, but it will also help to create highly skilled jobs and local opportunities as we build back better from the pandemic,” said science minister Amanda Solloway.

In addition to providing funding to fledgling launch providers through ESA’s Boost! program, the UK announced March 5 that it is working toward introducing a regulatory framework designed to enable commercial small satellite launch operations from its shores to commence from 2022. 

Orbex and Skyrora join German launch startups HyImpulse Technologies, Rocket Factory Augsburg, and Isar Aerospace, each of whom were awarded 1.5 million euros in Boost! funding in November

In addition to the five launch providers that have already been awarded Boost! funding, ESA has set up a permanent open call for new proposals. The initial open call in April 2020 saw the submission of 79 proposals.