WASHINGTON — Two European companies have raised a combined $115 million to continue work on small launch vehicles scheduled to make their first flights in 2022.
German startup Isar Aerospace announced Dec. 9 it raised a 75 million euro ($91 million) Series B round. European venture capital fund Lakestar led the round with participation from Earlybird and Vsquared Ventures, as well as existing investors.
Isar, which raised $17 million in a Series A round a year ago, is working on a launch vehicle called Spectrum designed to place up to 1,000 kilograms in low Earth orbit. The company announced in October an agreement with the French space agency CNES to conduct launches from the spaceport in French Guiana.
“Now we are completely financed until the maiden flight of our launch vehicle and can fully concentrate on the final development steps and upcoming tests,” Daniel Metzler, chief executive of Isar Aerospace, said in a statement. “In other words, there’s nothing standing in the way of the first successful launch of a German launch vehicle into Earth’s orbit.”
Metzler told SpaceNews that the vehicle’s inaugural launch is likely to take place in early 2022. The company has not disclosed any customers for the vehicle, but he said the company has signed agreements with “different levels of commitment” from customers seeking to launch missions ranging from standalone science spacecraft to deployment of satellite constellations.
The company noted that nearly all of its investors are European. “We spoke to investors globally and chose Lakestar over many others because they bring in extensive experience of building great companies such as Spotify, with a great understanding of ecosystems: industrial, political, regulatory,” Metzler said. “Investors feel more comfortable going into deeper-tech companies than they did a few years ago, so I see the future for European space startups being very bright.”
“Isar Aerospace presents an opportunity for Europe to regain strong control of our own destiny when it comes to cost-effective and secure launch operations for satellite constellations,” said Stephen Nundy, investment partner at Lakestar, in a statement. “Maintaining our ‘technical sovereignty’ of key aspects of the space ecosystem is critical for our own security, and also to the rapid expansion of improvements to society this technology can bring.”
Isar has also benefited from government support. It is one of three German launch startups, alongside HyImpulse and Rocket Factory Augsberg, to receive grants valued at 500,000 euros each from the European Space Agency to support small launch vehicle development. The three companies received the ESA grants after being selected as finalists in a competition by the German space agency DLR that will offer up to 25 million euros to the companies.
Orbex, a small launch vehicle company based in Scotland, announced Dec. 9 it raised $24 million in a funding round led by investment firms BGF and Octopus Ventures. Several existing investors joined the round, which also includes 2.5 million euro grant from the European Union’s European Horizon 2020 program to support technology development.
In an interview, Chris Larmour, chief executive of Orbex, said the company has now raised about $70 million. “This gets us quite along the track, I think, to where we want to be for launching the first one, maybe two vehicles,” he said, with the first launch planned for 2022.
The Orbex Prime vehicle is designed to place up to 150 kilograms into a sun-synchronous orbit. “We’ve gone through that experimentation phase and technology maturation phase of playing with the tech and getting it to work,” he said. “Some time next year we’ll reveal the full vehicle.”
The company has customers for six launches, with smallsat manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. slated to fly on the first launch. Larmour said the company expected to announce additional customers in the next several months.
Both of the lead investors in the round are based in the United Kingdom. “They’re aligned with our goal of launching from the U.K. and Europe,” he said.
Those investors, Larmour added, also can support the company in the future. “These investors are stage-appropriate. They have deep pockets,” he said. “They can invest in this round and subsequent rounds at the right kind of scale we need in this stage of the company.”
In addition to developing the Orbex Prime launch vehicle, the company is working through the U.K.’s new commercial launch regulations to get a launch license. It is also monitoring progress of the spaceport the British government announced in 2018 would be developed at Sutherland in northern Scotland.
That spaceport is facing legal challenges from Anders Holch Povlsen, a Danish billionaire who is a major landowner in the region and said he opposes the spaceport because of its environmental impact. Larmour, though, said he wasn’t concerned that the dispute could jeopardize development of the spaceport. “There’s a risk that it may go against the spaceport, but I think it’s low,” he said of a judicial review of the spaceport project requested by Povlsen. “With a bit of luck, we’ll be constructing by the middle of next year.”
Orbex is evaluating other proposed launch sites, such as Andøya in Norway and in the Azores, studies Larmour described as both a “de-risking” effort should the Sutherland spaceport be delayed as well as to accommodate a launch cadence higher than Sutherland alone can support. He added the company isn’t considering a proposed launch site in the Shetland Islands that Polvsen recently said he would invest in.
“Sutherland, on balance, is the best spaceport for us,” he said, based on factors such as economics and logistics. “I don’t see that changing.”