German Startup Takes on SpaceX With “Spectrum” Rocket to Launch 2021
A new rocket has entered production this week: The “Spectrum,” created by Munich-based Isar Aerospace Technologies. The launch is expected to take place at the end of 2021 when the spaceship will deploy satellite constellations (tens or hundreds or even thousands of satellites) up to space using 3D printed engines.
German startup Isar Aerospace Technologies was founded in 2018 with funding from Airbus and Susanne Klatten, among others, and is run by 28-year old Daniel Metzler.
The company wants to make space access affordable and sustainable and set the tone for the next decades of space transportation. They plan to use rockets like the Spectrum to launch satellites and satellite constellations in an extremely flexible and low-cost manner. Something that would have normally taken years to achieve could now happen in months.
In a competitive aerospace market, Isar is differentiating themselves by using a revolutionary way of producing rockets: Their Munich production facility has three large 3D printers that can work on three Spectrum vehicle launchers at the same time. Their second stage Aquila VAC engines also offer something no other can: the deployment of satellites across different orbital planes.
SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, revolutionized the world when it sent its liquid-propellant rocket to space. The Falcon 1 reached orbit in 2008, making the company the first privately-funded one to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft.
Several more records were to follow: In 2012, SpaceX’s Dragon reached the International Space Station (ISS), achieved a propulsive landing with Falcon 9 in 2015, reused it in 2017, sent a Tesla car in orbit around the sun, and became the first private company to send astronauts to orbit and visit the ISS in 2020. SpaceX is now working on an Interplanetary Transport System called Starship, which is expected to be fully reusable and replace the Dragon9 for crew and cargo delivery.
The development of reusable rockets proved a turning point for space exploration. Ever since that first Falcon 1 launch, private firms have been developing ambitious space technologies such as crewed landings on the moon and low-cost satellite launches. The fact that NASA paired with SpaceX to send a crewed mission to the ISS showed that private enterprise and government agencies could work successfully together, opening the door to even more cooperation.
Early this year, the aerospace sector showed promise in a variety of projects distributed around the world. Virgin Galactic had become publicly traded in October 2019, and expected tourism flights to happen as early as June 2020. Blue Origin was also planning test flights of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle by the end of the year, while NASA was getting ready to launch four missions for Mars.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the dates, but the global space industry is still expected to generate more than $1 trillion in revenue for 2024. However, the biggest motivator is not space tourism but satellite broadband internet access, with the sector expected to represent at least 50% of the total projected growth. Morgan Stanley estimates that the cost of wireless data per-megabyte could get to less than 1% of today’s levels.
For Europe, the main provider of satellite launches is French company Arianespace. Last week, its Vega rocket carried 53 satellites from 21 different customers and 12 countries to orbit. The launch was a milestone as it marked the debut of Europe’s new Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS) satellite dispenser, a program designed to help customers launch small satellites on rideshare missions.
Competition for the rideshare market is tight. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 can launch a satellite for as little as $1 million. However, Germany is far from giving up the fight: Alongside Isar Aeronautics are two other nascent manufacturers: HyImpulse and Rocket Factory Augsburg.
Instead of satellites having to wait a long time to piggyback on large rockets such as SpaceX’s, these small companies would allow for micro-launches that can go to an exact orbit and offer precise positioning.
Isar and the Spectrum
Isar Aerospace plans to manufacture most of the rockets themselves using technology from Munich and its surrounding areas, an aerospace hub with many young and motivated people. Because they plan on 3D printing the rockets in their hangar, the efficiencies would allow the company to charge a competitive €10,000 ($11,818) a kilogram.
The Spectrum uses Aquila engines, which were fully developed in-house and use hydrocarbons and liquid oxygen with reduced environmental impact. The two-stage launch vehicle is specifically designed to deploy satellites. The rocket has a payload capability of 1,000 kg to low-earth orbit, a fairing volume for satellite constellations. Each rocket is 27 meters (88 feet) long and can reach orbit in under eight minutes.
The first stage of the Spectrum features nine Aquila SL engines and uses cryogenic liquid. A lightweight interstage hosts a second engine for early ascent phases. But it’s the second stage that makes a difference: With an Aquila VAC engine and multi-ignition capability, satellite constellations can be deployed without an additional kick stage.
Isar hopes to eventually launch at least 20 flights a year. Their offer of dealing with satellite constellations (instead of individual satellites), aided by Spectrum’s second stage, means they can deploy across different orbital planes. And because all this would be done from Europe, customers from the continent could avoid the import/export controls associated with launches made from locations like India.
Once the rockets are ready, customers will be able to book a place and expect their satellites to be in orbit in just a matter of months.
Isar hopes the administration of Chancellor Angela Merkel will offer further support, as local launches can offer strategic advantages that go beyond costs. The German government is apparently willing to launch with Isar as an anchor customer.
The Spectrum rocket is guaranteed to be an extremely suitable addition to the current launcher landscape in Europe. 2021 can’t come soon enough.