Airbus Backs a New Space Startup

The ranks of companies lining up to launch rockets into space -- and challenge incumbent rocket launchers United Launch Alliance, Arianespace, and SpaceX -- just keep growing and growing.

Last week we told you about "Exolaunch," a German launch aggregator that's buying berths aboard SpaceX rockets to launch satellites for its own third-party customers. Today we'll introduce you to another German company -- and this one makes rockets in its own right: Isar Aerospace is its name, and small rockets are its game.

Artist's depiction of the Isar Spectrucm small rocket

Image source: Isar Aerospace.

Introducing Isar ... and Spectrum

As Britain's Financial Times reported last month, Gilching, Germany-based Isar has just begun production of a new rocket called "Spectrum" that will be the "first privately built rocket" in Germany, marking that nation's move to "join the commercial space race."

Designed to launch mostly small satellites (generally defined as 500 kg or smaller) into orbit, the 27-meter-tall Spectrum is a two-stage rocket with an impressive payload, lifting up to 1,000 kg, or one full metric ton, to Low Earth Orbit. The rocket's first stage is powered by nine internally developed Aquila engines fueled by "light hydrocarbons and liquid oxygen." Its second stage uses a tenth Aquila engine, optimized for performance in a vacuum, and capable of turning off and on multiple times, to place its payloads in the precise orbits its customers require.

Isar boasts multiple financial backers, including most notably the European Space Agency (ESA -- their "NASA") and the venture capital arm of Airbus (OTC: EADSY). In fact, as recently as December, Airbus participated in a "Series A" round of private financing that grossed Isar $17 million to continue developing his rocket.

Airbus weighs in

In addition to the cash, Airbus signed a memorandum of understanding with the start-up in December to help bring Spectrum to market, and promised "to add Isar Aerospace to our global portfolio of innovative launch systems."

In this regard, Isar is in a curious position. On the one hand, it's sort of competing with European space giant Arianespace -- targeting small rockets at a time when Ariane is doubling down on development of heavy rockets like its new Ariane 62. On the other hand, because Airbus is the parent company of Ariane, but also backing Isar, Europe's most important aerospace company is making sure it has a finger in every pot, and a bet placed on every horse than might possibly win the space race going forward.

What comes next

Isar plans to begin testing Spectrum later this year, and to begin launching in late 2021 -- an extraordinarily fast move from concept to execution for a company that was only founded in 2018.

It's entering a field of small rocket launchers, however, that is getting more crowded by the day. Worse, it's not entering at the head of the pack, but somewhere toward the back. Notably, New Zealand's Rocket Lab has successfully put more than a dozen payloads in space, launching from a single spaceport on New Zealand's North Island -- and things are going so well down there that the company is preparing to open up two new spaceports, one in New Zealand, and one in Virginia.

Several other competitors are gearing up to launch their own small rockets, too, and all before Isar's will be able to get off the ground. Over the next year or so, space fans should see launch attempts by Mark Cuban-backed Relativity Space, Firefly Aerospace, and Ad Astra. Well-funded rival Virgin Orbit will also probably attempt to rectify its unsuccessful first rocket launch attempt from May before Isar makes its own attempt.

Granted, Isar differentiates itself by offering a rocket with a larger payload than its small-rocket rivals, yet still smaller than what the "space majors" fly. At the right price point, Isar may manage to create a niche all its own. Still, for the time being, all Isar has is a "paper rocket" -- and a lot of ground to make up if it hopes to catch Rocket Lab.

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