Is a future SpaceX emerging from the shadows? After three years of development in the greatest secrecy, the Californian start-up Astra unveiled at the beginning of February a project of micro-launcher which wants to revolutionize the space sector. Where SpaceX charges for the launch of its Falcon 9 rocket between $ 50 and $ 60 million (for satellites weighing several tonnes), Astra is targeting $ 1 million launches for loads of around 200 kilos. An ultra low-cost positioning: this price would be five to seven times cheaper than that of the current champion of micro-launchers, the American of New Zealand origin Rocket Lab, who bills his shots from 5 to 7.5 million dollars. After two test shots, Astra is planning its first orbital launch on February 21, from the launch pad at Kodiak Island (southern Alaska).
Sacred story as that of the young Californian shoot. Founded in 2016 by Chris Kemp, former NASA technical director, and Adam London, an aeronautical engineer who went through MIT, Astra Space is the prototype of what the Americans call the “stealth start-up” (stealth start-ups): no communication for years, developments made under radars, and an exit in broad daylight once the projects are well advanced and the funds raised. Rather than settling in the depths of the Mojave desert like some of its competitors, the two accomplices developed and tested their launcher in an old aircraft engine test building, on the disused naval air base of Alameda, in full San Francisco Bay. In almost total secrecy, Astra thus tested its engines 8km as the crow flies from San Francisco, without the neighbors noticing, and recruited 150 employees. Among them, as revealed by Bloomberg Businessweek, a slew of alumni of SpaceX, like Chris Thompson, one of the historians of the group of Elon Musk, or Roger Carlson, former production director of the Dragon capsule at SpaceX.
$ 100 million raised
Still on the radar, Astra also managed to raise $ 100 million from venture capital funds Acme, Canaan Partners, Advance, Innovation Endeavors and even Airbus Ventures from Airbus, which had already invested in the catapult project. SpinLaunch space. “We are the largest space company you have ever heard of,” says the start-up's presentation video. The company has already made two launches from Alaska, in July and November 2018, and must launch on February 21 a third version of its launcher, soberly called Rocket 3.0 on the company's website.
Is all this serious? Astra assures on its site that its first two shots from Alaska were successful, even if the second was “shorter than expected”. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the US aerospace regulator, is not entirely of the same opinion. It evokes accidents (“Mishaps”) in both cases. “They had an incident on their last launch, confirms François Chopard, founder of the Starburst accelerator, the world's largest player in the aerospace sector. But they have bounced well, raised money, and seem to have a rocket that holds the road.” Airbus also seems to believe it hard as iron. “Astra is an impressive concentration of talent, daring and pragmatism,” says Thomas d'Halluin, managing director of the Silicon Valley-based Airbus Ventures fund, who took a ticket in the start-up.
The next shot, scheduled for February 21, is part of a competition launched by DARPA, the Pentagon's advanced innovation cell. Astra was to face two competitors there: Vector, another player in low-cost space launches, and Virgin Orbit, one of Richard Branson's space groups. The first went bankrupt, and the second threw in the towel, leaving Astra the only candidate. To win the expected prize ($ 12 million in all), Astra must successfully launch the first from Alaska, then a second from another launch pad (probably Wallops, Virginia) within 15 days.
One thing is certain: Astra is tackling an already well-bottled micro-launch market. The most advanced actor is the American of New Zealand origin Rocket Lab, who has already made 11 launches of his Electron rocket since his launch pad from New Zealand. The group notably put into orbit on January 31 a satellite of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), one of the American intelligence agencies. Another major player: Virgin Orbit. The Long Beach-based group is preparing for the next few weeks the first launch of its LauncherOne rocket, which will be dropped by a Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl over the Mojave Desert. The Texan FireFly Aerospace is also aiming for a place in the segment, despite a fire last January on its Alpha launcher during a ground test, as was the Californian Relativity Space.
The micro-launchers fever has even reached Europe. One of the first players to get started was the Spanish PLD Space, which for the moment seems, despite subsidies from the European Space Agency (ESA), to hurry slowly. Germany defends two big projects. The first is that of the start-up Isar Aerospace, which raised $ 17 million last December fromAirbus Ventures and Earlybird Venture Capital to develop its Spectrum launcher. This project is supported by former SpaceX Bulent Altan. The second project is that of the satellite manufacturer OHB, via its subsidiary Rocket Factory Augsburg. As for the British Orbex, he is developing a launcher called Prime, which he wants to launch with a new launch pad built in Scotland. France? She seems to be lagging behind: alone HyprSpace start-up is working on a micro-launcher project, for which she is seeking funding.
Arianespace believes that these micro-launchers projects cannot be competitive in the face of offers from “Rideshare” (simultaneous launches of satellites from different clients) from established players (Ariane 6, Vega, Falcon 9 from SpaceX), except when massively supported by NASA or the Pentagon. “There will be no new small launcher possible if there is no institutional client behind, estimated the CEO of Arianespace Stéphane Israël in Challenges in June 2019. We are convinced that our “Rideshare” on Vega and Ariane 6 are more competitive. “Now in full light, Astra Space will have the heavy task of proving the opposite.