PLD Space books first suborbital flight, nears resolution of engine setback

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WASHINGTON — Spanish launch startup PLD Space says secured a second customer for the maiden flight of its Miura 1 reusable suborbital rocket while tackling development issues that prevented the mission from occurring last year. 

Pablo Gallego Sanmiguel, PLD Space’s senior vice president of sales and customers, said Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida will fly four student- and faculty-built experiments on Muira 1. Those payloads take the remaining commercial space on the mission, which will also fly two microgravity experiments for the Bremen, Germany-based Center of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity, also known as ZARM. Half the rocket’s payload space will carry sensors to study its first flight. 

PLD Space planned to launch Miura 1 in 2019, but delayed the rocket’s debut after a “series of test firing anomalies” during engine development, Gallego Sanmiguel said by email. 

“It was concluded that the issues were related to an overpressure condition during the start of the engine at ignition,” Gallego Sanmiguel said. 

Since-resolved structural issues welding parts of the rocket also delayed the flight, he said. 

Miura 1 uses a single liquid-oxygen- and kerosene-powered engine called Teprel-1B. 

Gallego Sanmiguel said PLD Space solved the engine problem through a combination of upgraded launch site infrastructure and improved procedures. The company, however, has not yet set a new launch date.

“As part of the qualification, and to reduce any additional risk, PLD Space is performing additional qualification engine firing tests at our engine test facilities in Teruel, as well as computing a rigorous requirement review,” Gallego Sanmiguel said. 

PLD Space will set a launch date for Miura 5, its orbital rocket, after successfully launching a Miura 1 rocket, Gallego Sanmiguel said. 

Miura 5 is designed to carry 300 kilograms to low Earth orbit. PLD Space plans to recover the rocket’s first stage using a combination of retro-propulsive maneuvers and parachutes. 

PLD Space conducted a reusability test with the European Space Agency in April, dropping a Miura 5 booster from a Chinook helicopter and retrieving it from the Atlantic Ocean. Gallego Sanmiguel said the test provided technical knowledge and valuable experience coordinating with the Spanish Army and INTA, Spain’s National Institute of Aerospace Technology. 

The test “makes the recovery of Miura 1 in the Atlantic Ocean feasible and predictable,” Gallego Sanmiguel said, since both rockets are designed for reusability.  

PLD Space plans to launch Miura 1 rockets from El Arenosillo, INTA’s suborbital spaceport located on the southwestern coast of Spain not far from Portugal. Gallego Sanmiguel said PLD Space wants to launch Miura 5 rockets from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in South America, and forged an agreement with the French space agency CNES to realize that goal. 

Gallego Sanmiguel said PLD Space, now 42 people, is courting customers for both the suborbital Miura 1 and orbital Miura 5 rockets. He said the company will seek to transition suborbital customers to the Miura 5 when they are ready for orbital missions. 

Gallego Sanmiguel joined PLD Space in September, having previously worked for SpaceX, Arianespace and the European Space Agency. 

“All of these experiences have enabled me the confidence to bring my 30 years of experience to the PLD Space family and to see this company progress forward as I know they can,” he said. 

Gallego Sanmiguel said his experience with the 2012 maiden flight of Vega, Europe’s smallest orbital launcher, will be particularly helpful at PLD Space.