Exotrail Isar launch
Exotrail's agreement with Isar Aerospace covers multiple launches of its spacevan OTV on Spectrum rockets between 2024 and 2029. Credit: Isar Aerospace

WASHINGTON — Exotrail, a French company developing orbital transfer vehicles, has signed a contract with German launch vehicle developer Isar Aerospace for multiple launches over the next several years.

The companies announced Nov. 3 they signed a launch services agreement to launch Exotrail’s spacevan vehicle on Isar’s Spectrum rocket on multiple missions between 2024 and 2029. The launches will take place from Andøya, Norway, and Kourou, French Guiana. The companies did not disclose a specific number of launches or the value of the agreement.

Exotrail will use the launches for a service it calls spacedrop for delivering smallsats to their desired orbits. That uses the spacevan orbital transfer vehicle (OTV) the company is developing, which in turn uses electric propulsion systems and software the company currently offers to other customers.

“The contract with Isar Aerospace enables us to consolidate our spacedrop service by offering more launch opportunities to customers looking for bespoke and competitive access to LEO and GEO orbits,” Jean-Luc Maria, chief executive of Exotrail, said in a statement.

Exotrail has primarily been known for its work on electric propulsion systems. That included an agreement announced in September with Airbus to provide Exotrail thrusters for future Airbus Earth observation satellites.

A service like spacedrop, though, has long been part of the company’s plans. “When we started in 2017, we did so as a logistics company,” said David Henri, chief product officer of Exotrail, in an interview in September during World Satellite Business Week. “People know us mostly for propulsion, but we’ve been doing more than that from the beginning.”

He said Exotrail sets itself apart from others developing orbital transfer vehicles because of its in-house development of electric propulsion. That translates into increased payload capacity and performance, including the ability to perform larger orbital plane changes that would be desirable for customers deploying a satellite constellation.

“The market wants plane changes and access to GEO. Today, that’s where we see the big interest in OTVs,” he said. “I do not see how to close a business case for an OTV using chemical propulsion.”

Henri argued transfer vehicles like spacevan are needed even with the proliferation of small launch vehicles that offer the promise of dedicated launches. That’s particularly true, he said, of companies working on relatively small constellations that might require launching 100 kilograms of satellites at a time. “Buying 100 kilograms on a one-ton-class microlauncher is not enough to secure your destination,” he said. “You will be considered a rideshare customer.”

Isar’s Spectrum, which is in that one-ton class of small launch vehicles, is under development and scheduled to make its first launch in 2023. “Exotrail is one of the leading European NewSpace companies. We are delighted to welcome them on board Spectrum’s flights,” Daniel Metzler, chief executive of Isar Aerospace, said in a statement. “We are proud to further expand our launch manifest.”

Exotrail is not the first OTV developer to sign a launch agreement with Isar. In June, D-Orbit, an Italian space logistics company, announced it booked a Spectrum launch for its ION Satellite Carrier vehicle scheduled to take place as soon as 2023.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...