Europe's first reusable rocket could launch by the end of the year

PLD Space is ready to launch its Miura 1 rocket from "Spain's Cape Canaveral."
Chris Young
An artist's impression of PLD Space's Miura 1.
An artist's impression of PLD Space's Miura 1.

Source: PLD Space / YouTube 

Spanish firm PLD Space announced today that it successfully completed a full mission test after having carried out two static fire engine tests earlier this year.

The new milestone is the culmination of 11 years of hard work, and it paves the way for Elche-based PLD Space to launch its reusable Miura 1 rocket before the year's end. In a tweet, PLD Space wrote: "Full Mission Test successfully completed. Now, Miura 1 is ready to fly."

The company conducted the test at Teruel Airport, and they aim to launch their Miura rocket from the Arenosillo launch facility in the south of Spain, which has been referred to as "Spain's Cape Canaveral."

Miura 1's full mission test

PLD Space's full mission test took place during nighttime at Teruel Airport in the west of Spain on Wednesday, September 14. The 110-second mission tested the Miura 1 rocket's subsystems to ensure it is ready for launch by the end of the year.

The test also fired up PLD Space's liquid-propellant Teprel-B engine, which will lift Miura 1 into space. The mission, however, was focused on testing all of the rocket's systems at the same time to make sure they were working correctly ahead of launch. In May, PLD Space put the Teprel-B engine through its paces with its second and final static fire test prior to launch.

Europe's first reusable rocket

Europe's rocket firms are clearly lagging behind the likes of SpaceX, which has successfully pioneered reusable rocket technology and recently launched a Falcon 9 first-stage booster for a record fourteenth time.

PLD Space was founded in 2011 by CEO Raúl Torres and COO Raúl Verdú with a view to accelerating innovation on the continent. 11 years later, the company is on the verge of its first rocket launch as it's now been greenlit to launch Miura 1 by the end of the year.

To date, the company has raised more than €50 million in funding, with a small part of that coming from the European Space Agency.

Europe's first reusable rocket could launch by the end of the year
The PLD Space team stood next to a Miura 1 rocket.

Source: PLD Space 

Miura 1 will be Spain's first rocket to go to space, but it will also be Europe's first reusable rocket, helping it meet the booming demand for small payload launches to low Earth orbit (LEO), spurred by the likes of SpaceX and Rocket Lab.

Originally called Arion 1, Miura 1 is 12.5-meters (41 feet) tall, and it has a payload capacity of 100 kg (200 lb). As a point of comparison, SpaceX's Falcon 9 carries 25,000 kilograms (55,000 lb) to LEO, and Rocket Lab's Electron lifts between 200–300 kg (440–660 lb). The Miura 1 is fueled by a mixture of liquid oxygen and kerosene.

Europe's first reusable rocket could launch by the end of the year
A Miura 1 Drop Test.

Source: PLD Space 

The rocket will reach an altitude of approximately 153 kilometers. It will then return to Earth and deploy its main parachute at an altitude of roughly 3 kilometers. This allows it to perform a soft splashdown over the ocean, where a vessel will come to lift it out of the water and back to land.

It won't be quite as jaw-dropping as SpaceX's automated booster landings or even Rocket Lab's helicopter booster-catching method, but it will be an impressive start nonetheless.

El Arenosillo, Huelva: 'Spain's Cape Canaveral'

Now that Miura 1's full mission test is completed, PLD Space aims to launch its rocket from El Arenosillo in Huelva in the south of Spain.

In 1966, NASA contracted the Spanish Government to launch meteorological rockets in order to study wind and temperature variations in the first 100 km of altitude of the atmosphere. As a result, El Arenosillo was born, a facility that some now refer to as the country's, and indeed Europe's, own version of Cape Canaveral.

As PLD Space points out on its website, the facility, which is run by Spain's Ministry of Defense, has launched more than 550 sounding rockets. It is also graced by sunny weather and mild temperatures for 85 percent of the year, making it an ideal launch location.

PLD Space is also developing another rocket, Miura 5, which will have a much larger payload capacity of 450 kilograms (992 lb). Miura 1 was designed to allow PLD Space to test their systems for Miura 5, which will be their operational rocket. Unlike Miura 1, that rocket will launch small satellite payloads to LEO, and it's expected to launch from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana, instead of El Arenosillo, by 2024.

PLD Space isn’t the only European firm building reusable rockets. France-based rocket giant ArianeGroup is also developing a new small-lift reusable rocket called Maïa, though that's not expected to be operational until 2026.

Talking about the Maïa project last year, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said, "we will have our SpaceX, we will have our Falcon 9. We will make up for a bad strategic choice made ten years ago." He also announced that ArianeGroup's rocket will be Europe's first reusable launcher, though it looks like PLD Space could beat ArianeGroup to the punch. Stay posted for more updates from Europe's newest launch systems.