For those old enough to remember the ebullient creativity, audacity, and can-do attitude of the internet gold rush of the late 1990s, there's a sense of déjà-vu when it comes to the current trends in space exploration. One day, it's a billionaire floating gleefully in a shiny new spacecraft above the Kármán line, the next, it's the announcement that a five-manned start-up is planning to set up datacentres in the Moon's lava tubes, never mind the fact that we haven't set foot on the lunar surface for over half a century.
There is a good reason for feeling giddy as the space tech industry is changing. Fast. From materials science to telecommunications systems, from remote sensing software to sustainable propulsion systems, no industry sector has been untouched by a surge over the last decade of fresh ideas and capital as hundreds of space tech start-ups have sprung into existence. The figures speak for themselves: 6,500 satellites were launched in the last sixty years; 23,000 satellites will be launched in the next five to ten years generating services for the Internet of Things, Earth Observations, and more.
Welcome to the era of NewSpace.
At its heart lies the notion of democratisation in access to space. This new playing field is characterised by the miniaturisation of technology (i.e., CubeSats, smallsats, and nanosats), considerable injection of private capital (i.e., Bezos), and the continued reduction in the cost of launching things into space (i.e., Virgin Orbit). In January last year, a single SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket placed into orbit 143 payloads of all shapes and sizes – a record that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier.
While NewSpace seems to be dominated by American companies, Europe is no lightweight. Between 2014 and 2020, the EU alone injected over EUR 12 billion in space activities, and space tech accelerator programs such as Space Founders (French and German), X-Europe (EU), Fit 4 Start (Luxemburg), or Seraphim Space Camp (UK), are helping to shape European's private access to space.
If that wasn't enough, networking events are budding throughout Europe. For example, Space Tech Expo Europe - a sister event of Space Tech Expo USA - will open its doors in Bremen for the fifth time this November to thousands of professionals from across the European space tech industry. Another event, NewSpace Europe, based in Luxembourg, aims to link start-ups with investors this October. In addition, European countries are developing spaceports, such as the UK, which has seven proposed sites.
In this new environment, referred to as Space 4.0 by the European Space Agency, European space tech start-ups are thriving, with companies emerging in locations better associated with family holidays, such as historical British towns, the Spanish coast, or the foothills of the Italian Alps. Key to all these locations is the proximity to major universities that serve as anchors to regional technological hubs and the improved quality of lifestyle. Let us meet some of these space tech companies.
Based in Italy and founded in 2011, when NewSpace was still a concept, D-Orbit provides an end-to-end solution from launch to placement in orbit with a reduction of the launch costs of an entire satellite constellation by up to 40%. Its secret weapon? An electric propulsion system that allows its space vehicle to execute manoeuvres and change altitude to bring a fleet of smallsats into their desired orbit one by one. Indeed, sharing a ride with a larger mission to reduce launch costs will only take a smallsat so far into low Earth orbit (LEO). A space vehicle is then required to deploy these into their final orbits. In the industry, this is called the last-mile delivery and is set to become a hotly contested space with a forecast of 120 orbital transfer vehicles, or space tugs as they are more commonly known, in operation by the next decade. Spain's PLD Space and France's ExoTrail, two companies quickly making their mark, are also vying to conquer this last-mile delivery market.
Skyrora, one of those NewSpace start-ups with an evocative name and cool logo to go with it, is building rockets and space tugs to deliver satellites into LEO from one of the UK's spaceports in the Shetland Islands. Founded in 2018 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Skyrora is the perfect illustration of the adaptability inherent to start-ups as the company is not only content to build rockets, but it has also designed its own 3D printer and developed an eco-friendly rocket fuel based on unrecycled waste plastic. With the largest rocket engine manufacturing facility in the UK, the company is spearheading Scotland's growing space tech industry.
Another noticeable company is Interstellar Lab. Located in the suburbs of Paris, this firm's mission is to provide fresh foods to astronauts in LEO by designing autonomous greenhouses that act like biopods. Controlled by AI, these pods could potentially feed future colonists on the Moon or Mars. Interstellar Lab's offering is so compelling that NASA and ESA have partnered with them.
These are just a few of the growing list of NewSpace firms in Europe. Want to build a satellite? Space Structures in Berlin will give you the parts you need and the software to go with it. Looking for the most efficient rocket propulsion system in the market? Pangea Aerospace calling from Toulouse and Barcelona have been working on it for over five years now. Need a sensor to monitor gas in a spacesuit? Arquimea in Madrid will happily deliver.
As for what might happen above the Kármán line in the coming decades, there seem to be no limits. Companies such as Skyrora and D-Orbit are looking into the feasibility of a space circular economy where satellites become modular, and dead satellites could be recycled to create new ones. Also, NASA and ESA's renewed interest in placing boots on the Moon's surface before the decade's end is driving significant investment in technologies that will take NewSpace further afield.
As such, the need for engineers and scientists to fuel space tech's rapid growth will continue to be more pressing. Derek Harris, Business Operation Manager at Skyrora, lists three critical attributes for anyone interested in pursuing a career within the field: you need to be passionate and driven, be an excellent team player, and be adaptable to change. In exchange, the pathways for growth seem boundless and will take place much faster than in most industries. So, if you are considering a career in the booming European space tech industry, it appears that the only way to go is up.
About the Author: Bernard Henin is a published author currently writing books and articles on space science and technology.