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Europe boosts small rocket R&D as big launcher deadline slips

Image: European Space Agency

Space agency funds three light-rocket companies amid mounting delays to Ariane 6

The European Space Agency has signed the first grant agreements under a rolling funding call to support the development of commercial rockets, opening up more potential routes to space as one planned route recedes from its grasp.

Three German companies—HyImpulse Technologies, Isar Aerospace Technologies and Rocket Factory Augsburg—each won at least €500,000 in Esa funding to help finish the development of small rockets designed to loft small satellites into orbit.

The companies will spend the money on testing, finalising designs and building manufacturing facilities, the agency announced on 3 November.

Esa’s announcement came after it confirmed on 29 October that Ariane 6, a large rocket being developed by the French aerospace company ArianeGroup, will not launch until 2022 due to delays caused in part by Covid-19.

Ariane 6 will be the latest in the Ariane rocket family, all members of which were designed to loft large payloads. Its maiden flight, carrying many small satellites, had been slated for 2020.

Esa said that “technical events and the Covid-19 pandemic have both impacted the progress of activities” for Ariane 6’s maiden flight, which is now scheduled to happen between the start of April and end of June 2022.

Meanwhile, the United States space agency Nasa announced on 4 November that the launch of the US-European Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich ocean-monitoring satellite originally planned for 10 November is now expected to take place on 21 November. A launcher from the US company SpaceX will be used, and the delay was caused by a discovery that two of the launcher’s engines needed to be replaced, Nasa said.