European spaceflight companies are racing to be the first to reach orbit

black rocket in hanger-like building
Orbex's Prime Rocket on display at its Scottish headquarters in 2019. (Image credit: Michal Wachucik/AFP via Getty Images)

PARIS — A number of emerging European commercial rocket companies are vying to reach orbit first, with debut launches expected in the second half of 2023.

Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA), headquartered in Bavaria, Germany, is targeting the end of 2023 for the first launch of its RFA One rocket, RFA spokesperson Jonas Kellner told at the International Astronautical Congress in Paris in September.

"The next steps we are preparing right now are the integrated system tests where we take the already flight-qualified second stage, including all the pressure systems and avionics and everything, and we integrate it with a Helix engine for the full flight duration of a second stage," Kellner said. "After that, we'll do the same with the first stage early next year, in Q1, Q2, and then it's all ready for the end of 2023."

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The three-stage RFA One is designed to launch 3,500 pounds (1,600 kilograms) to low Earth orbit and is powered by the Helix staged combustion engine. RFA has been testing its engines in Kiruna, Sweden, which lies within the Arctic Circle. 

Once the engines are tested and ready, the company will ship the first RFA One to SaxaVord, a commercial spaceport that's currently under construction in the Shetland Islands, around 100 miles (160 kilometers) off the northeast coast of Scotland. 

Who will be first? 

One of RFA's considerations will be the opportunity to be the first commercial European spaceflight company to launch to and reach orbit. 

In its efforts toward reaching this goal and the chance to claim a portion of a market for light launch services in Europe, however, RFA faces a field of rivals. Competitors in Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain are also working toward their first launches and proving their launch capability and reliability.

One such company, Scotland-based Skyrora, is also planning its first launch from SaxaVord. Derek Harris, Skyrora's business operations manager, told that the company is 3D-printing and testing engines for its Skyrora XL orbital rocket, which is designed to launch up to 695 pounds (315 kg) to sun-synchronous orbit.

"We're pushing ahead for Q3 [2023], to try to get it up there and try to be the first," Harris said. "From a technical point of view, we're very confident, very positive. There's lots of hard work going on. It's a big team approach. Hopefully, this time next year, we'll be celebrating the successful launch of the Skyrora XL launch vehicle."

Skyrora also has staff in Ukraine, the home country of Skyrora founder Volodymyr Levykin and a nation with a long history in rocketry.

Back in Germany, Munich-based Isar Aerospace is also in the race to reach orbit. "We are working with full force towards the maiden flight of our launch vehicle Spectrum, planned for 2023," Isar Aerospace spokesperson Tina Schmitt told via email. "Seeing first flight hardware in production now underlines our progress.

"Our energy is focused on validating system designs through testing and, where necessary, doing final design tweaks," Schmitt added. "Currently we are testing our completely in-house developed engine design at our own testing site in Kiruna, Sweden."

The two-stage Spectrum rocket, designed to launch 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg) to low Earth orbit, will lift off from Andøya Space Center in northern Norway.

Each company is already forging agreements and securing launch contracts, both from national space entities seeking to boost activity in the sector and private companies looking for access to space. 

Other companies are in the mix, too. Another Scotland-based launch firm, Orbex, is working toward the planned 2023 debut launch of its Prime rocket from Space Hub Sutherland in Scotland. 

Elsewhere in the U.K., Virgin Orbit is expected to launch from Cornwall later this year. Meanwhile, HyImpulse, a spinoff from the German Aerospace Center, is developing a hybrid-propellant rocket named SL1, SpaceNews reported, and Spain's PLD Space is preparing to launch its Miura 1 suborbital rocket in the near future while also working on the orbital Miura 5 rocket, according to SpaceNews

Each company is already forging agreements and securing launch contracts, both from national space entities seeking to boost activity in the sector and private companies looking for access to space. Beyond bragging rights and historical notes, the first of these companies to successfully reach space could gain a big advantage in securing partners.

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Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI.