August 5, 2021

In Germany, the future “micro-launchers” are reshuffling the cards of European space

Through the machine’s window, a ray of light engages in a strange choreography. It is a laser which, at high speed, traces a design on a sort of gray metallic sand. It melts on contact with the line of light, forming a cloud of sparks and a thin stream of smoke. Impossible to take your eyes off this ultra-precise luminous ballet. Once the drawing is finished, an automatic arm deposits a new layer of metal. And the laser resumes its work. Layer after layer, the machine “prints” in 3D a metal part with complex shapes. What is manufactured before our eyes, by this process known as “additive manufacturing”, is a component intended for… a rocket engine.

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In the hall of the factory of the start-up Isar Aerospace, in Ottobrunn, in the suburbs of Munich, a dozen machines of the same type are at work, 3D printers or milling machines. Around them are busy a few rare workers, who display a youthful air. They’re all fresh from college. Their leader, Daniel Metzler, is himself 29 years old. Their ambition: to develop, by the end of 2021, a small rocket 2 meters in diameter and 27 meters long, capable of placing in low orbit, at an altitude of 500 kilometers, satellites of new generation, ultralight, sometimes barely bigger than a shoebox. “The new manufacturing processes allow us to design an engine system 100 times cheaper than current European thrusters, more quickly”, he explains. “However, the engine is currently 40% of the price of the rocket. “

Spurred on by the United States, space is opening up at full speed to rapidly growing commercial uses and new protagonists

What is playing out before our eyes illustrates the revolution underway. At the instigation of the United States, which gave it the name of “New space”, space is opening up at full speed to rapidly growing commercial uses and new protagonists. Two elements contribute to this dynamic, underlines Eric-André Martin, researcher at the French Institute of International Relations, in a note published in March: the considerable drop in the costs of entry into the space market, which allowed the arrival state actors and private entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk with SpaceX or Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin, and the explosion in demand, under the effect of the digitization of the economy.

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