Isar Aerospace wins three-way DLR microlauncher competition

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VALLETTA, Malta — German launch startup Isar Aerospace beat out Rocket Factory Augsburg and HyImpulse Technologies to win a DLR endorsement that clears the way for it to secure 11 million euros ($13 million) from the European Space Agency’s Boost! program. 

DLR, Germany’s space agency, announced its microlauncher competition May 15, 2020 as a multi-round funding drive aimed at promoting the development of domestic smallsat launchers. The competition is funded by the German government and managed through the ESA Boost! program, which aims to foster commercial launch capabilities in Europe.

Isar Aerospace, Rocket Factory Augsburg, and HyImpulse, the three launch startups that qualified for the competition, received 500,000 euros in ESA Boost! funding in November. Those initial awards funded specific development goals in preparation for the competition’s two main rounds, each worth 11 million euros in ESA funding.

The first round is now all but decided following DLR’s April 30 announcement that it has chosen Isar Aerospace to receive a DLR letter of support required to submit a formal service proposal to ESA. The agency will review Isar’s proposal and enter into negotiations with the company before signing a launch contract and awarding the 11 million euros in development funding. As the sole submission for the award, this process is largely a formality.

Isar has raised more than $90 million in private funding since 2019, including a $75 million Series B round led by European venture capital fund Lakestar. 

In a statement, Isar Aerospace CEO Daniel Metzler called the announcement a significant milestone for launch services in Europe.

“We are particularly pleased about the paradigm shift this implies: For the first time, a government contract has been awarded to a purely privately financed space launch startup in Europe. The government is no longer funding technological development but is becoming an anchor customer.”

In return for the 11 million euros in funding, Isar Aerospace will be required to launch two 150-kilogram payloads of the German government’s choosing over two flights.

The institutional payloads will be carried to orbit aboard Isar Aerospace Spectrum rockets, a two-stage rocket designed to deliver up to 700 kilograms of payload to sun-synchronous orbit. 

The maiden flight of the Spectrum rocket is currently slated for mid 2022. However, Metzler told SpaceNews that the launch date would be dependent on whether the launch pad being built by Andøya Space in Norway would be fully operational in time.

There could be more than one winner

While Isar Aerospace prevailed over Rocket Factory Augsburg and HyImpulse Technologies to win DLR’s endorsement for the first 11 million euros, all three companies remain in the running for an additional 11 million euros that will be awarded under Boost! next year.

“In the current round of the microlauncher competition, Isar Aerospace Technologies has come out on top, but HyImpulse Technologies and Rocket Factory Augsburg have also made significant progress,” said Walther Pelzer, the head of DLR. “In this close race, both companies and their promising concepts have another chance to receive funding of 11 million euros in April 2022.”

DLR has not spelled out the criteria for the 2022 award, at least not publicly, but the date roughly coincides with when all three companies currently expect to fly their competing rockets for the first time. In November, when ESA divided 1.5 million euros between the three, at least two of the companies (Isar and RAF) were still shooting for late 2021 maiden launches. 

The DLR microlauncher is funded through 25 million euros Germany pledged to ESA’s Boost! program at the Space19+ ministerial council meeting in Seville in November 2019. In addition to German launch startups, the program has assisted in fostering launch startups in the United Kingdom. Through funding pledged to Boost! by the U.K. government at Space19+, Orbital Launch Express (Orbex) and Skyrora were awarded a combined 10.45 million euros.

In response to the news that Isar Aerospace had won DLR’s endorsement, Rocket Factory Augsburg spokesman Ibrahim Ata told SpaceNews that the competition was more about prestige and would not have made a material impact on operations.

“It would have been great to win this from a prestige point of view but in terms of operations, it’s not much,” said Ata. “We congratulate the winner and we will enter the next round of the competition. Until then we will continue to extend our technological lead.”

Rocket Factory Augsburg is designing its RFA One rocket to carry 1,300 kilograms to a 300-kilometer polar orbit. Over the last two months, RFA has secured three launch contracts from other parts of its parent company OHB SE and completed an initial ignition test of the rocket engine that will power the RFA One. In February, RFA announced that it was embarking on a 25-million-euro financing round with the aim of setting up serial production of its 3 million euros per launch rocket. 

HyImpulse Technologies, meanwhile, is developing its three-stage SL1 rocket, which is designed to carry payloads of up to 500 kilograms to low Earth orbit. HyImpulse, a spinoff of DLR, announced in March that it entered a strategic partnership with rideshare specialist Exolaunch [PDF] for end-to-end launch services.