In classical mythology Arion was a winged horse with black hooves highly valued by the gods and heroes of antiquity. Now, in the 21st century and transformed into a rocket, it will fly higher to allow the Spanish company PLD Space to conquer space. This Elche-based startup aims to break through the growing nanosatellite market. But his dreams go further as evidenced by the recent agreement with the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop launcher recovery technology, a technique that appears to be the key to the future aerospace industry.
“All of humanity’s means of transportation, from a horse to an airplane, are reusable. But not a rocket,” says Raúl Torres, CEO of PLD Space and co-founder of the company together with Raúl Verdú in 2011. This engineer explains the There is interest in space agencies around the world in achieving an effective rocket recovery system. A technology that would lower the cost of current launches and, therefore, make the space more accessible. “It doesn’t make much sense that every time you have to launch a rocket you have to throw it in the trash,” summarizes Torres.
An order book of 50 million euros
The small satellite business is booming thanks to the miniaturization of technology. “Almost 70% of all the satellites shipped in the world weigh less than 150 kg,” explains Raúl Torres. However, most rockets are intended to launch large satellites. That is why PLD Space wants to be in that market with the Arion 2, which precisely has a load capacity of 150 kg in low orbit. But it will also have the capacity to place up to 5 kilos in lunar orbit. For all these reasons, the smaller dimensions of this rocket adapt perfectly to the needs of this thriving market.
“This allows to simplify and access the space more economically,” says Torres. At the moment the idea has already seduced several companies and institutions. In fact, PLD Space has an order book worth 50 million euros. If all goes well in three or four years, the winged horses of PLD Space will fly through the skies into space laden with “cubesat” (satellites weighing just 1.5 kg) to do scientific experiments of all kinds and better understand the Cosmos.
The idea is advancing strongly in the United States, where private companies such as SpaceX, by billionaire Elon Musk, or Blue Origin, also by tycoon Jeff Bezos, have shown that this technology is possible by conducting several successful tests. That is why Europe does not want to be left behind and they have placed their hopes in the LPSR program (Liquid Propulsion Stage Recovery) that amounts to 750,000 euros and of which PLD Space is now a main part with its launchers. The objective is to be able to do the first test with an Arion 1 suborbital rocket at the end of 2018. The launcher will take off from the Huelva base of El Arenosillo and after 110 seconds the engine will shut down. After reaching 220 kilometers high, it will reenter the atmosphere to fall into the Atlantic Ocean. The small dimensions of this launcher will cause various types of parachute to be used to achieve its braking.
These launches will serve to obtain the necessary data for the Arion 2, which could become the first European reusable rocket. Its greater dimension will allow it to place up to 150 kg of payload in a 400-kilometer orbit and will use retro-propulsion for its controlled descent – in addition to parachutes. Among the many challenges that the project faces is ensuring that the rocket does not sink when it reaches the sea and avoiding the corrosion caused by sea water. If all goes well, they hope to make the first flight in late 2020.
To achieve the PLD Space objective, they have obtained the help of the also Spanish GMV, which has 30 years of experience in the space sector – it participates in ESA’s ExoMars mission and also in the successful Rosetta. He will contribute his knowledge in electronics and flight software and telecommunications. “It will be our cousin from Zumosol,” jokes Torres.
The next milestone in his meteoric race to space will be later this year with the first version of the launcher being tested statically in Teruel, where the company has its engine test bench. “That means that we will vertically put something that will look like a rocket to make it work during a mission time. 110 seconds,” stressed Torres. To achieve this, the 18 PLD Space workers, who will become 25 this year, work hard. “For us it is a marathon every day. And it cannot stop being it in the next five or ten years,” explains the company’s CEO.
They are aware that each step they take involves entering unknown terrain in Spain and sometimes in Europe as well. Although Torres laughs when they are called the “Spanish Elon Musk”: “Unfortunately we do not have 100 million in the bank to invest in the rockets.” However, PLD Space has had the financial backing of the Center for Industrial Technological Development (CDTI) under the Ministry of Economy from the beginning. “We went to the administration that has sufficient competence and criteria to be able to say whether we were crazy or not,” admits Torres. Thanks to that, the Spanish conquest of space is closer.