German startup Isar Aerospace signs first launch contract

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VALLETTA, Malta — Isar Aerospace, one of three German startups vying for ESA funding for smallsat launchers they each aim to debut next year, has won its first launch contract.

Airbus Defense and Space plans to launch a future Earth observation satellite on Isar Aerospace’s Spectrum rocket, a two-stage rocket designed to deliver up to 700 kilograms of payload to sun-synchronous orbit. The contract announced April 22 includes options for additional Spectrum launches but does not specify a timeline for the one firm mission.

Isar Aerospace aims to conduct Spectrum’s maiden launch in 2022. Founded in 2018, the Munich-based company recently arranged for exclusive use of one of two launch pads at Norway’s Andøya Space Center, which is currently under construction. The 20-year lease will enable Isar Aerospace to deploy payloads into sun synchronous and polar orbits.

Airbus Defence and Space is currently working on at least two Earth observation constellations destined for sun-synchronous orbits. One of those, Pléiades Neo, will consist of four 750-kilogram satellites, the first of which is slated to launch April 29 on an Arianespace-operated Vega rocket along with five smaller payloads. Airbus plans to use Vega and Avio’s upcoming Vega C to launch the other three Pléiades Neo satellites, which are all too heavy for Spectrum’s advertised 700-kilogram to SSO capacity.

The Composante Optique 3D (CO3D) constellation, a joint undertaking by Airbus and the French space agency CNES, looks like a better fit for Isar Aerospace’s rocket. Although the initial four-satellite CO3D constellation is slated to be launched aboard a Vega C in 2023, Airbus anticipates that the constellation could grow to between 12 and 24 satellites. At 300 kilograms each, these satellites would be well within Spectrum’s projected capabilities to launch two at a time.

A three-way race for ESA funding heats up

Isar Aerospace is one of three German launch startups currently developing small rockets with an eye toward winning European Space Agency support.

Along with Rocket Factory Augsburg and HyImpulse Technologies, the three startups are competing as part of the German Space Agency DLR’s microlauncher competition.

The competition, which is being run in conjunction with ESA, will award one of the three startups with 11 million euros ($13 million) in funding later this year. The funding is to be used to support a qualification flight that will carry a payload for a university or research institution for free. A second prize of 11 million euros in funding will then be awarded in 2022 as the final stage of the competition.

In evaluating the three startups, the DLR panel of judges will examine the technical aspects and commercial feasibility of each launcher. As a result, each startup’s success in securing funding and signing launch contracts will play a role in their chance of winning the competition.

Isar Aerospace is the second of the three German rocket startups to secure their first launch contract. Rocket Factory Augsburg signed a contract with a sister company OHB Sweden AB on March 31 for the launch of a single mission. The as-yet unannounced payload will be launched in mid-2024 aboard the company’s RFA One rocket, which is slated to be launched on its maiden flight in 2022 and is designed to carry payloads of up to 1,300 kilograms into low Earth orbit.

HyImpulse Technologies is developing the three-stage SL1 launch vehicle, which is designed to carry payloads of up to 500 kilograms to low Earth orbit. The vehicle is expected to make its debut in 2022. HyImpulse is the only one of the three startups yet to secure their first launch contract.

In December, Isar Aerospace closed a 75-million-euro Series B funding round. A month earlier, the launch provider was awarded 1.5 million euros as part of the European Space Agency’s Boost! initiative, which aims to foster new commercial space transportation services in Europe. With the addition of its first launch contract, Isar Aerospace is paving the way for the company to be a part of a privately-funded commercial European launch market in its infancy.