In April 2018, with permission of the competent authority and if the weather does not prevent, a Spanish rocket called Arion 1 will launch a suborbital flight with 100 kgs of payload (scientific experiments, microgravity tests …). And then return to its base. It is not a project on paper. It’s serius.
On the morning of Tuesday 22th (Spanish time), the technology tycoon Elon Musk was able to claim victory at last. The Falcon 9 of SpaceX, managed to return to its launch base and land on his feet. It was the fourth attempt. Two crashed into the floating platform where they should settle and another exploded on takeoff. This time it landed on the mainland, in the same Cape Canaveral. But other technology mogul, the owner of Amazon and The Washington Post Jeff Bezos, was ahead of Musk in November with the New Shepard rocket of his company Blue Origin. The SpaceX experiment was used to place in orbit 11 satellites of ORBCOMM … “No, it’s the other way around. Launching satellites took advantage to try again the landing test,” corrects Raul Torres, founder and CEO of PLD Space. His space company was born in 2011 to create reusable rockets. “It is the essence of our business model. We aspire to be the European little Space X. His idea is in the right way and has changed the rules of the game in America.”
For his first space step, in April 2018, the company based in the Science Park of the Miguel Hernández University of Elche (Spain), plans to launch Arion 1, a one stage rocket, 10 meters long and 60 centimeters in diameter for a suborbital flight 220 kilometers high. It will rise and remain six minutes in microgravity. And the rocket will return to the base. “We cannot get vertical landing, like the Falcon. That, maybe in a second phase,” says Torres. “Our rocket will use a braking parachute, in free-fall from space. It will stabilize. When the atmosphere gets dense enough, it will deployan autonomously guided by computer paragliding, which will bring it back to the base.”
LDP Space develops two rocket models. The Arion One suborbital and Arion Two, “with the same technology.” This measure 20 meters and 1.2 meters in diameter. It will be a two stages rocket to put objects in orbit between 400 and 1,200 kilometers, with payloads up to 150 kgs. It may take from multiple miniaturized satellites ‘CubeSat’ (10cm edge cubic modules ‘stackable’, between 3 and 15 kilos) to a 150 kgs ‘MINISAT’. The first flight of Arion 2 is scheduled in June 2020.
Both models aim at a rate of 18 launches per year, ten of Arion 2, to which they need to always have three rockets each, one recovered from the last flight, another in launch ramp and a third under construction in factory.
“We are the first European company of this kind. We offer a service tailored to customer needs, not only when there’s room, throwing from Europe,” stressed the CEO. Takeoffs will be (still in negotiations with the Ministry of Defense) from the military base Arenosillo in Huelva.
The geographical situation of the site will force to retrograde launches, to the West, to the Atlantic. Launch eastward, like from Florida or French Guiana, allows to take advantage of Earth’s rotation, but “we must fly over various countries. It is risky. If we could launch from the Canary Islands, we could do it in both directions. Go to the East is better, it allows to increase the load to 30% .”
The payload will travel free the first mission, but PLD has orders for “40 million in letters of intent. They come from Europe and around the world. We would like all clients be Spanish in the first launch, but we’ll see” says CEO.
“Our project is not just paper plans and power point,” says Torres. The startup PLD has already developed a liquid fuel engine (kerosene and oxygen), it has been tested in its propulsion facility at the airport of Teruel “and works.”
Liquid fuel lowers costs (it costs two euros one kilogram, the solid, 50) and requires less bloated machinery, with smaller size and weight, but consumes more. Takeoff undergo less effort to the “payload”. It is “low acceleration”, three times less than traditional rockets “that are based in war missiles. Instead of one or two minutes, we’ll take five to climb up.” The price of a launch will be between one and 1.5 million, compared to 70/90 million cost of a Falcon 9.
And next step: The Moon in 2023. There is a planned mission. “Yes, Arion 2 technology allows us to send a satellite into lunar orbit place. It’s in our plans.”