Europe is trying to create its own SpaceX effect, with a growing focus on backing smaller and nimbler spacetech companies.

Keval Dattani was working as a nuclear engineer on Rolls Royce’s submarine programme, focusing on technology for the UK’s next generation Dreadnaught submarines, when he had a sudden realisation: space technologies were making submarines — the very technology he had devoted so much of his career to — obsolete.

“With radar and satellites able to look ever deeper into the sea, submarines could well become useless in the future,” he says. But, Dattani reasoned, many of the technologies developed for submarines could be applied to spacecraft.

Keval Dattani, CEO and founder of Space Power.

Initially, he switched to working on small modular nuclear power for spacecraft before hitting on another space power idea that might be realisable on a slightly shorter timeframe: providing extra power to space satellites using lasers.

This was the idea behind Space Power, the startup Dattani launched in 2019. Think of it a little like sending an extra battery into space to power up startups, much the same way you might provide an extra boost to a flagging mobile phone.

Satellites generally use solar power to operate, but their ability to generate and store enough solar power for the functions they need degrades over time. Also, some new technologies such as synthetic aperture radar and thermal imaging are very power-intensive and solar panels struggle to generate enough power for their operation. Satellite operators often need to be sparing in the ways they use their multi-hundred million-dollar satellites because of their concerns over power.

“It’s like having a Bugatti Veyron that you can only drive for half an hour a day.”

“It’s like having a Bugatti Veyron that you can only drive for half an hour a day,” says Dattani. Space Power’s idea is to launch supplementary power sources into space that could give satellites a boost via a laser beam connection when needed.

The company, which will exhibiting its technology at the GCV Symposium in London next week, is partnering with BAE Systems, the UK aerospace multinational, to launch a first module into space in 2026. It is seeking to raise a £6.5m ($8.3m) seed round to help fund the build and launch.

Dattani and Space Power are one of a number of new spacetech-focused startups that have sprung up over the past decade in the UK and Europe as the region scrambles to address the opportunities opened up by the falling cost of space launches. Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets have sent launch costs tumbling and demonstrated how privately-held space companies could speed up development.

Space Power, Space Villages, Astron Systems and Stars Edge will among the early-stage startups exhibiting at the GCV Symposium in London in June.

Europe’s space efforts have tended to be concentrated in large publicly-funded joint projects like the Arianespace programme, where the latest launcher, Ariane-6, has cost some €4bn ($4.3bn) and is running four years behind schedule. But it is also seeking to develop smaller, lower-cost and nimbler alternatives to give Europe its own SpaceX-effect.

Investment in European spacetech is growing fast. A study by Seraphim, a spacetech VC firm, showed that investment in European spacetech in the first quarter of 2023 — some $565m — outstripped investment in North America. Isar Aerospace, the German launch vehicle developer, has raised $330m to date, while Rocket Factory Augsburg, another developer of launchers, has raised more than $63m in funding, and UK rocket developer Orbex has raised $130m so far.

Spacetech companies exhibiting their systems at the GCV Symposium are younger businesses at seed and pre-seed stage but they demonstrate the wide range of new capabilities that are emerging. Many of them are looking for corporate partners to help accelerate their development.

New rocket designs

Astron Systems is developing reusable rockets for launching small satellites into space. Eddie Brown began developing the idea while finishing his master’s degree in engineering at Imperial College London.

Small rockets can be easier to launch because they encounter less air resistance on reentry — the higher surface-area-to-volume of a smaller rocket means it has a higher ballistic coefficient. But one of the biggest challenges is that the propulsion systems in smaller rockets wear out faster because they need to operate at higher speeds. Astron has developed a pump system that dramatically reduces wear and tear on shafts and bearings, increasing the lifetime of the rocket.

Reusable small rockets would lower the cost of putting satellites into space down to $4,000 per kilo says Brown, dramatically lower than the market leader, US-based Rocket Lab. Astron has raised some pre-seed funding so far but is now seeking to raise a £2m round to grow the team and test a propulsion system.

Eddie Brown, CEO of Astron Systems. Image courtesy of Astron Systems.

Astron’s competitors on reusable rocket designs include US names such as Stoke Systems, which has raised a total of $175m following a series B funding round last October. But Brown says UK-based startups operate in a favourable environment.

“I think the UK has every reason why it could be the future global leader for a lot of these things. Space is a pretty major part of our economy on the satellites and services side of things and we have some of the best talent and engineers coming out of Oxford and Imperial programmes. It’s also a lot cheaper to operate here. Engineer salaries are about half the level of the US,” says Brown.

Spacetech startups outside the US also have the advantage, Brown says, that they are outside of the US’s International Traffic in Arms Regulation (Itar) rules, which restrict sales of technology related to defence and the military.

Another startup working on a novel engine technology is Stars Edge, a startup co-founded by Sara Alao, a PhD candidate at Cranfield University. The company has a patent-pending technology to create an air-breathing satellite engine, which would allow satellites to be placed into the upper atmosphere rather than into space orbit.

Satellites at this range — some 150km to 200km above sea level, compared with low earth orbit satellites at altitudes of 1,200km — could be used for much higher-resolution earth observation and for providing telecoms connectivity.

Image courtesy of Stars Edge.

The problem with upper atmosphere satellites is creating an engine able to overcome the drag of the thin air in upper atmosphere. Propellants — typically xenon or argon gas — are quickly depleted. But using the air itself for fuel source means you can have an inexhaustible supply. Alao says that, while she knows of four other companies working on similar projects, she believes that Stars Edge has a unique design that will gain the edge.

Staffed by a team of ten people, Stars Edge is seeking to raise a $3.2m seed round to expand staffing and bring a product to market. The team hope to test the system in 2025.

Repairs in space

Space Villages, a fourth space startup at the GCV Symposium, meanwhile, is leaning into another space need. With some 9,900 satellites in orbit — and numerous projects underway to put more space stations in orbit over the next decade, there is a growing need for space services — deliveries, repairs and waste removal. Dutch startup Space Villages, led by chief executive Natalia Lemarquis, develops robots that can carry out repair work in space, starting with satellites.

“Satellites have solar panels which must open up their wings, and sometimes these get stuck and can’t provide any power. Even the best satellite in the world won’t work without power. We want to be able to fix that instead of operators having to throw away a $700m satellite,” says Lemarquis. There has been strong demand from the telecoms industry for this kind of service, she says.

The company has a 15-person team working on the technology. It is looking for £2m to build a demonstration unit by 2025. It hopes to have a first system in orbit by 2027.

While the first uses might be to fix jammed solar panels, the long-term vision is for the company to provide all kinds of services across the growing network of space stations and satellites.

“The industry needs ambitious goals. There are seven active projects to build a space station in orbit — those space stations will need services, waste management, cargo delivery,” says Lemarquis.

Maija Palmer

Maija Palmer is editor of Global Venturing and puts together the weekly email newsletter (sign up here for free).