Provided by Rocket Factory Augsburg (2022).

It would have been seconds that rather felt like many minutes. Two weeks ago, German space start-up Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA) performed its first hot fire test of their staged combustion Helix engine, lasting for 74 seconds. Although the test didn’t involve anything leaving the ground, it gave a sense for how the German company’s rocket would perform when launching high up. 

This is the latest step in RFA’s plan to support a burgeoning space satellite industry based on the use of low-Earth orbit by providing the RFA ONE launch vehicle that could service multiple clients (and their differing purposes) within the same trip. 

Jonas Kellner, Head of Marketing, Communications & Public Affairs at Rocket Factory Augsburg thinks outside the box when it comes to imaging the different opportunities and industries that could take advantage of low-Earth orbit satellites. 

He points to more common expectations, such as providing network support for autonomous vehicles or providing internet connection to remote regions. Then he suggests much more, like satellites being used to help with disaster management or verifying information for insurance claims. 

RFA would support these various companies using satellites close to Earth by providing a rocket that could service these diverse needs within the same trip. It’s a unique market, not yet ventured into by many enterprises. SpaceX and BlueOrigin are among the few notable brands that are producing similar rockets, but RFA rests the only company in the EU to have tested a staged combustion engine. 

Technical shrewdness

RFA’s rocket capabilities read impressively on paper. It will be capable of carrying up to 1,300kg in payload, an efficient 30% increase over traditional open cycle engines. The 30m tall rocket would be able to reach orbit at 700km above Earth. 

Additionally, the rocket will be assembled using several parts that can be printed off a commercial 3D printer. While carbon composite bodies have been popular for engine structures, RFA’s product will also use stainless steel for the first and second stages that can then help to reduce weight and make walls thinner. These specifications reinforce the company’s view that they can mass produce rockets to meet the anticipated level of demand in space. 

Daring to say a more sustainable rocket

There are environmental concerns that have been pointed to as a result of launching rockets. The damage inflicted on the planet can include chemical pollution of the soil, soot particles being propelled across the sky and even bouts of acid rain. 

Kellner understands this and points out that RFA are looking to do things differently with the ONE and its engine specifically. 

He says: “In an open cycle engine, the gas that drives the turbine and thus pumps are simply vented into the atmosphere. In a closed cycle one, we use this gas containing a lot of unburned fuel again to drive the main combustion chamber. This makes the whole engine not only much more efficient and powerful, but also more environmentally friendly.”

Kellner also underlines that recycling has also been a consideration. He explains: “Our first stage will be reusable, which will lead to less CO2 production through new production as well as less pollution of the oceans with old rocket stages.”

This combines with the orbital stage of the rocket having a longer lifeline of up to five years. It gives it the chance to perform more tasks aimed at prolonging the life of other satellites, such as monitoring, repairing and helping to take old assets out of orbit.

More work for 2022

The German-based company has been using a site in Sweden for its rocket tests since 2020. RFA will continue trialing their latest designs for the RFA ONE and have an integrated systems test that will bring together the upper stages with the Helix engine in late 2022. 

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