Elche’s PLD Space to build Europe’s first reusable rockets

Funded by the European Space Agency under its Future Launchers Preparatory Programme (FLPP), this project is set to bring a massive injection of talent to this region of Spain.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has pledged its support to PLD Space, a start-up based at the Universidad Miguel Hernández Science Park (PCUMH) in Elche, to the tune of 750,000 euros for its project «Liquid-Propulsion Stage Recovery». These funds will enable PLD Space to carry out both ground and flight testing, and mature its technologies to the point of being able to make its first space launch, a feat set, according to its founders, for 2018. The start-up will be joined by the company COMET Ingeniería in Valencia and the Basque technology centre Tecnalia.

The project is the first of its kind in Europe, breaking with standard practice in the aerospace sector to design the continent’s first completely reusable commercial launcher. Traditionally, disposable rockets have been used to launch satellites into orbit. These new rockets will drastically cut the cost of scientific and commercial access to space.

Reusable rocket technologies have already been developed in the States by companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. In December 2015 and for the first time in history, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully landed its Falcon 9, a 70m tall rocket weighing in at 550 tonnes on take-off. This technological milestone was joined in the same year by the landing of the unmanned New Shephard rocket by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, another entrepreneur perhaps better known for his online retail company, Amazon. Both companies have had the financial and technological backing of NASA from the outset to carry out these feats, which have passed into the history books.

PLD Space’s project is a first in Europe for liquid propulsion launchers. Currently the team is immersed in the technology development stage, aiming to have a reusable rocket ready by 2018. For its CEO and co-founder, Raúl Torres, «this project is the beginning of ESA support for our company and small commercial launcher technologies», adding that «PLD Space rockets will meet the launch needs of the small satellite market, valued at over seven billion dollars in 2020».

Meanwhile, technology director and fellow co-founder, Raúl Verdú, tells us that «we are positioning ourselves within Europe as the go-to provider for the commercial space launchers of the future». He also points out that «the American company SpaceX achieved what it did with 4000 engineers, and at Blue Origin the team is now 500 strong. PLD Space hopes to employ just over 100 engineers by 2020».

Future outlook

Based at the UMH Science Park, PLD Space is already working on its next phase. This includes opening, in Elche, the first suborbital and small orbital rocket manufacturing and assembly plant in Europe. As Torres and Verdú point out, «Elche will become the European technology hub for this sector and will attract highly-qualified engineering, manufacturing and assembly professionals in all rocket subsystems».

Besides its installations at the UMH Science Park, the company has a test stand at Teruel airport. It plans to build two new test stands at this site in order to meet the needs of its development programme. These stands will allow the company to test its rocket motors before flight, as well as conduct static testing of the fully-assembled rockets.

Source: Universidad Miguel Hernández Science Park