Isar Aerospace wins 10 million euro European Commission launch competition

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WASHINGTON — Isar Aerospace won 10 million euros ($11.3 million) in a European Union prize competition, the latest sign of the E.U.’s growing role in supporting Europe’s launch industry.

During the 14th European Space Conference in Brussels Jan. 25, Thierry Breton, the E.U. commissioner whose portfolio includes space, announced that Munich-based Isar Aerospace won the European Innovation Council Horizon Prize for low-cost space launch. Isar is developing a small launch vehicle called Spectrum whose first launch is slated for no earlier than late 2022.

Isar was one of three finalists for the prize announced earlier this month by the European Commission, along with another German small launch vehicle developer, Rocket Factory Augsburg, and Spanish company Payload Aerospace, which is working on a reusable small launcher. Those three came from an initial pool or more than 15 applicants, Breton said at a ceremony during the conference to announce the winner.

“This is a big, big deal for us, because it shows, first of all, the maturity on our side,” said Stella Guillen, chief commercial officer of Isar, in an interview. “It shows that we’re leading these microlauncher activities in Europe. It’s also a huge sign of trust from the European Commission. It gives credibility for what we are doing.”

Isar had already raised more than 150 million euros to fund its development of Spectrum, a vehicle designed to place up to 1,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. The company has expanded a factory for producing the rocket as well as set up an engine test site in Sweden.

She said the company would use the prize money to support the company’s research and development activities and infrastructure. Testing of the engines that will power Spectrum, as well as other vehicle components, is in progress. That work is keeping the company on schedule for a first launch from Andøya, Norway, late this year or early next year.

While Isar is looking for customers worldwide for spectrum, it is focusing on both European government and commercial customers. “There’s a huge need for a flexible launcher that can launch many times, either rideshare or dedicated,” Guillen said. “I think our advantage for launching out of Europe is the European market in general.”

A growing E.U. role in launch

The European Commission has been supportive of small launch vehicle efforts like Isar despite skepticism from some in the European space industry, and among some national governments, about the size of the market for such vehicles.

“Small launcher solutions can provide flexibility and also responsiveness and affordability,” Breton said at the prize ceremony. He predicted that institutional demand for small launchers in Europe will grow.

“The E.U. industry of launchers, particularly for micro and minilaunchers, is very promising,” he said. “We must ensure that we have microlauncher solutions in the E.U.”

The prize awarded to Isar Aerospace is just the latest sign of a growing interest by the European Commission in launch vehicle development, a role traditionally left to national governments and the European Space Agency.

During a panel discussion at the conference Jan. 25, Paraskevi Papantoniou, deputy director for space in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defence, Industry and Space, said the commission was looking into other ways to support the industry, such as improved access to testing facilities. “We realize there are some bottlenecks, so it’s something we’re closely looking at,” she said.

She said that the commission budgeted 65 million euros for space access programs in 2021 and 2022, mostly to support development of propulsion technologies and reusability. Her office is preparing a work plan for 2023 and 2024 that could seek additional funding. “We want to boost a bit our support around the strategic priorities of the commission,” she said, including space transportation technology and ground infrastructure.

One proposal that has attracted scrutiny is the creation of a European “launcher alliance” that would bring together both established and emerging launch providers. Breton, in a speech that opened the conference, said a formal announcement of a European Space Launcher Alliance would come soon “to define a technological roadmap and a holistic European approach to launchers” to support both large and small vehicles.

“It is not about creating a monopoly. It is not about favoring certain existing players,” Papantoniou said of the alliance. Instead, she described the alliance as bringing together existing and new launch companies, along with the public sector, “to discuss what should be the European vision of the future of launch.”

The alliance, she said, would work cooperatively with companies and with ESA on developing a long-term roadmap for launch vehicle development. It would also address the demand for new launch vehicles from the public and private sectors.

Companies on the panel had mixed reactions to the alliance. “We understand how important it is for Europe to grab and keep leadership,” said Morena Bernardini, vice president of strategy at ArianeGroup. “This is possible only if industry is pushing in one direction.”

“We’ll see what comes out of it,” said Jörn Spurmann, chief commercial officer of Rocket Factory Augsburg. “I hope it will facilitate what we’re looking for, which is a free commercial market for the institutional payloads that we have in Europe.”

Daniel Metzler, chief executive of Isar Aerospace, was more skeptical. “It very much depends on how it is actually implemented. In Europe we’re extremely good at bureaucracy, unfortunately,” he said. Having an “open platform” for launch services with the European Commission as an anchor customer would be good. But, he warned, “if we make mistakes on the processes and how we implement it, it might just backfire.”

“We really want to be there as an honest broker,” Papantoniou said of the alliance, facilitating both small and large players. “We can be very bureaucratic in Brussels, so this is something that we have to fight against.”