Somewhere northwest of Germany’s exclusive economic zone in the North Sea, hundreds of kilometers from Bremerhaven: a 30-meter-long container opens in a special vessel. Slowly, a small launcher including a launch frame emerges from the container and positions itself vertically upward. It will take about two years before this vision of the German Offshore Spaceport Alliance (Gosa) in Bremen for a floating rocket launch platform becomes reality. Commercial suppliers could then launch satellites into low Earth orbit, for example for Earth observation, climate research or broadband Internet.
Three weeks before the federal elections, Gosa and the industrial association BDI have now signed the first public cooperation agreements with four rocket start-ups. The fact that T-Minus from the Netherlands and Skyrora from Great Britain are there in addition to the Rocket Factory Augsburg and Hyimpulse aims to underline the European component. “The launch platform thus strengthens the entire New Space ecosystem in Germany and Europe in the long term,” said BDI President Siegfried Russwurm. The BDI first presented the idea for a German launch site in 2019.
New Space is the “key to new technologies, global networks and data-driven business models”, the key word is autonomous driving. “Germany now has the unique opportunity to rebuild a New Space value chain… from small satellites, small launchers and a North Sea launch pad,” Russwurm said. “Of course, we want the North Sea spaceport to come,” said Federal Minister of Economy Peter Altmaier (CDU) and announced a feasibility study. He also considers cooperation with foreign start-ups to be wise. “We are taking a step together with our European neighbors.”
The Gosa consortium, with which the space company OHB, the companies Tractebel Doc Offshore, BLG Logistics and Media-Mobil, the shipping company Harren & Partner and the insurer Lampe & Schwartze want to initiate the construction of a rocket launch site, is in the middle of planning. “We do not yet know in detail exactly what permits we need, we are currently checking it,” said the spokesperson for Gosa. And the list to go is long: in addition to environmental and nature conservation issues, it is also about securing the airspace and sea area around the departure vessel.
Missiles travel by train to the North Sea
What operators can already sketch out quite precisely is the sequence of a rocket launch. Rocket parts and satellites arrive by train in Bremerhaven, where rocket makers and customers assemble them in a hangar with a clean room. Engineers and technicians then store the finished rocket horizontally in a container and load it onto the ship. At the point of departure at sea, there are up to seven days for preparations. When the crew switches to the escort ship, the rocket can begin to refuel and the security ships take care of maritime traffic. After launch, a salvage vessel retrieves the burnt rocket stage from the sea.
According to Gosa, up to 25 launches per year are possible with a launch pad. “We expect that we will have to invest a maximum of 27 million euros by the first start in 2023,” said the spokesperson. The initiators are also hoping for financial support from Berlin. If everything were to be privately financed, housing starts would cost more. “It would be a competitive disadvantage for us compared to other European starting points,” she said, especially since these would also consist of tax revenues.
A German rocket launch site is controversial, especially as research rocket launch sites are being extended in Sweden (Esrange) and Norway (Andøya) and more are in the pipeline, as in Scotland. One of the critics is Daniel Metzler, founder of the small rocket maker Isar Aerospace. There are “too many arguments against a German North Sea launch pad, both structural and operational as well as economic”, he says, as it would be “very costly”. “Also, it doesn’t make economic sense to have your own German launch pad if European needs can already be covered by Norway and French Guiana.” The company itself wants to use both starting points. Last but not least, a spatial law is still lacking, liability issues have not been clarified. Potential users such as satellite operator Planet Labs, on the other hand, are eagerly awaiting the launch site. This means that Germany will have a complete space ecosystem and will generate a lot of interest, said director Martin Polak.
Open detailed view
The small rocket must be transported horizontally by the satellite and mounted before takeoff. Illustration: Harren & Partner / oh