A commercial space startup based in Europe, called The Exploration Company, will be taking the services of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to execute its debut demonstration (demo) mission early next year.
According to a TechCrunch report, the mission was originally supposed to fly with Arianespace’s Ariane 6 rocket this year, but delays associated with the launch vehicle meant that The Exploration Company made the switch to ISRO's polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV), considered India's workhorse rocket.
The demo flight to Earth orbit and back, using a prototype called Bikini, is reportedly scheduled to take place in January 2024.
Towards the end of 2024, The Exploration Company plans to fly another demonstration prototype called "Mission Possible."
This prototype is slightly larger than Bikini and will attempt an ocean splashdown instead of burning up in the atmosphere. The company has already sold out all available spots for this mission.
As for their first orbital mission in 2026, The Exploration Company has yet to choose a launch provider.
This week, the company announced a preliminary cargo delivery agreement with Axiom Space, which is at work building the world's first commercial space station called Axiom Station.
Axiom has agreed to purchase a full mission from The Exploration Company no earlier than late 2027.
However, this is subject to the startup meeting specific milestones by 2025, as explained by CEO Hélène Huby in a recent interview with TechCrunch.
This development is crucial for the European space industry as it is the first time that a space player from the region has been picked by a commercial space company for cargo transportation services to space and back.
The Exploration Company aims to democratise access to space.
Their orbital vehicle of choice for this grand goal is Nyx — a modular and reusable space capsule that can be refuelled in orbit.
It will transport cargo and, later, humans to space and back, with a dominant focus on space station journeys.
"Indeed today there are only a few vehicles in the world that can carry cargo and/or humans to a space station. And this is the reason why at the Exploration Company we developed Nyx," the space startup says in its introductory video for Nyx as it envisions the rise of space stations orbiting Earth, but also the Moon, with time.
According to the company, Nyx can be a robotic space station in low-Earth orbit for about 10 per cent of the price of a full-fledged space station.
It will also, the makers say, be able to transport cargo and/or humans to existing space stations for just half the price of their competition.
Further out, both in space and time, Nyx promises to be able to land on the Moon, hop across the lunar surface for about 100 km, and even make a return journey from the Moon.
One of The Exploration Company's key advantages is said to be its ability to work with different launch vehicles. According to Huby, the company is launch vehicle-agnostic and this flexibility will, perhaps, be a differentiating factor in the future.
“I think that’s a big advantage that we have. I can fly with American launchers if this is NASA cargo we carry; if we bring Japanese cargo, we can use a Japanese launcher; and if we bring Indian cargo, we can use an Indian launcher," Huby told TechCrunch.
The Exploration Company is based in Bordeaux, France, and Munich, Germany.
Karan Kamble writes on science and technology. He occasionally wears the hat of a video anchor for Swarajya's online video programmes.
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