Last week, I began an examination of Europe’s efforts toward developing a reusable launch vehicle. In that issue
first issue, I spoke about institutional efforts toward realising that goal. This week, I am looking at the private entities that are pursuing the development of reusable launch vehicles. This list is not exhaustive but it does feature the most prominent and most interesting examples. It doesn’t, however, include any spaceplane projects - I am saving that for a standalone newsletter or article.
The creation of Maiaspace
was announced by the French Ministry of the Economy Bruno Le Maire on December 6, 2021. The ArianeGroup spinoff has been tasked with creating a “reusable mini-launcher” that will be debuted by 2026.
In order to achieve this ambitious goal, Maiaspace will lean on the work being done by ArianeGroup for ESA’s Themis reusable rocket booster and Prometheus methalox rocket engine projects. Apart from these details, very little is currently known about the Maia launch vehicle. This will hopefully change later this week when I get to speak to Maiaspace CEO Yohann Leroy.
Maiaspace has received seed funding from ArianeGroup and plans to begin raising funds from private investors in the first half of 2023.
Founded in Barcelona in 2018, Pangea Aerospace is developing an innovative 300 kN methalox aerospike engine called Arcos. The engine will power Pangea’s Meso reusable microlauncher capable of carrying a 400 kg payload to orbit. According to the company, the engine is designed to be reused over as many as ten missions.
Pangea Aerospace is leading the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Recovery and Return to Base (RRTB) initiative (which really should have been part of last week’s institutional initiatives) that includes Deimos and Thales Alenia Space. The initiative aims to validate the “tail-first atmospheric reentry” of a small launch vehicle, define and simulate different landing system configurations, and design a reusable cryogenic tank.
According to details published as part of the RRTB award
, Pangea Aerospace had planned to utalise a “novel patent pending horizontal landing technology that uses electric ducted fans situated in both sides of the first stage of the launch vehicle to brake the fall of the first stage, control it and perform a safe landing.” However, a redesign and recent public statements seem to have the company trending towards a parachute recovery system that would utilise a midair helicopter catch, much like Rocket Lab is attempting to do with Electron.
Hybrid Propulsion for Space (HyPrSpace)
French launch startup HyPrSpace is developing a novel hybrid aerospike propulsion system that will power its reusable Orbital-Baquette-1 (OB-1) launch vehicle. The vehicle is designed to be capable of carrying 250 kg payloads into orbit.
According to the company’s website, the first stage booster will be reignited several times during reentry, which will be followed by a soft landing into the ocean. It is currently unclear how much of the booster will be reused for subsequent missions.
Just last week, HyPrSpace won a call from the French Government to develop mini and micro-launchers as part of the country’s France 2030 project. The exact amount that will be awarded to HyPrSpace and fellow winners Sirius Space Services was not revealed.
UK launch startup Orbex is developing its two-stage Prime vehicle, which is designed to be capable of delivering 180 kg payloads to orbit powered by bio-propane fueled 3D-printed rocket engines. The company recently unveiled the first stacked article of its rocket and plans to attempt a maiden flight as early as late 2022.
According to Orbex, Prime will utilise a novel, low-mass reusability technology for partial recovery. However, beyond that, the company has not outlined the exact details behind this novel system.
Sirius Space Services
Founded in Paris in 2022, Sirius Space Services is developing a fleet of reusable launch vehicles capable of carrying payloads of up to 800 kg into orbit. The company’s Sirius 1, 13, and 15 launch vehicles are built around a common core booster powered by the company’s Star 1 methalox rocket engine. The three vehicles are slated to be debuted in 2025, 2026, and 2027 respectively.
According to the company’s website, Sirius plans to reuse 100% of its launch vehicles, which means the recovery of the upper stage and fairings. The company does, however, state that its reusability initiative is part of its “long term” goals. Although the company doesn’t offer any further details about its method of recovery, each booster features a set of deployable fins similar to the Falcon 9 but without any visible landing legs. This may indicate that the company plans to recover boosters with a parachute, with the boosters either dropping into the ocean or being caught midair.
As I stated earlier, Sirius Space Services was the second company to win a call from the French Government to develop mini and micro-launchers as part of the country’s France 2030 project.
Spanish launch startup PLD Space is developing its Miura 5 launch vehicle, which will be capable of deploying 450 kg payloads into orbit. The company is working towards this larger vehicle with the development of its Miura 1 suborbital launch vehicle, which is expected to make its debut later this year.
According to the company’s website, the vehicle will be partially reusable, with the first stage being recovered and reused. The stage will make a soft landing in the ocean under a parachute, where it will be recovered by a barge and returned for processing. However, the company has also mentioned a return to launch pad trajectory with a parachute descent. It’s unclear if this would also feature an ocean landing.
In June 2021, PLD Space won a 1 million contract from ESA
to study the most efficient solution to recover and reuse a Miura 5 first stage. The contract is part of the agency’s Future Launchers Programme and is a continuation of a similar agreement signed in 2017.
Sidereus Space Dynamics
Of all the launch and recovery solutions on this list, Sidereus Space Dynamics’ EOS may be the most novel. EOS is a five-metre single-stage-to-orbit minilauncher powered by the company’s Lox/Kerosene MR-200 rocket engine. It is designed to be capable of deploying payloads of just 30 kg into orbit and can be reused over more than ten missions. Oh, and it can also be launched from anywhere on Earth without the need for launch infrastructure.
Despite the fantastical outline of the vehicle, the company has already shown some development success. Earlier this month, Sidereus successfully test fired its MR-200 engine
. According to the company, the engine performed at 92% efficiency for over 10 seconds after an initial unstable startup.
Sidereus plans to build on this early success with aim of performing its first test flights in 2023.
Only the start
The above European launch startups are not alone in their reusability ambitions. Companies like Rocket Factory Augsburg and Isar Aerospace have also shown interest in implementing reuse into their own launch solutions. However, over and above some public statements, these companies do not outline these ambitions in any official documentation or designs. Once they do, I’ll amend this list to include them.