Somewhere in the 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 ship. Slowly a small launcher including launch frame emerges from the container and positions itself vertically upwards. 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 a reality. Commercial providers could then launch satellites there in low earth orbit, for example for earth observation, climate research or broadband internet.
Three weeks before the federal election, Gosa and the industry 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 is intended 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 of a German launch site in 2019.
New Space is the “key for new technologies, for global networking and data-based business models”, the keyword is autonomous driving. “Germany now has the unique opportunity to rebuild a New Space value chain … from small satellites, small launch vehicles and a launch platform in the North Sea,” said Russwurm. “Of course we want the spaceport in the North Sea to come,” said Federal Economics Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) and announced a feasibility study. He also considers cooperation with foreign start-ups to be sensible. “We are taking a step together with our neighbors in Europe.”
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 which permits we need, we are currently checking that,” says the Gosa spokeswoman. And the list that has to be worked through is long: In addition to environmental and nature conservation issues, it is also about securing the airspace and sea area around the starting ship.
Missiles travel by train to the North Sea
What the operators can already sketch out pretty precisely is the sequence of a rocket launch. Rocket parts and satellites come by train to Bremerhaven, where rocket manufacturers and customers assemble them in a hangar with a clean room. Engineers and technicians then stow the finished rocket horizontally in a container and load it onto the ship. At the starting position at sea, there are up to seven days for the preparations. When the crew changes to the escort ship, the rocket can begin refueling, and security ships take care of the shipping traffic. After the launch, a salvage ship fishes the burnt-out rocket stage from the sea.
According to Gosa, up to 25 launches per year are possible with a launch platform. “We expect that we will have to invest a maximum of 27 million euros by the first start in 2023,” said the spokeswoman. The initiators hope for financial support from Berlin. If everything had to be financed privately, starts would be more expensive. “That would be a competitive disadvantage for us compared to other European starting points,” she says, especially since these would also be built up with tax revenues.
A German rocket launch site is controversial, especially since launch sites for research rockets are being expanded in Sweden (Esrange) and Norway (Andøya) and others are being planned, such as in Scotland. One of the critics is Daniel Metzler, founder of the small rocket manufacturer Isar Aerospace. There are “too many arguments against a launch platform in the German North Sea, both structural and operational as well as economic,” he says, as it would be “very costly”. “In addition, it makes little economic sense to have your own German launch platform if the European needs can already be covered with Norway and French Guiana.” The company itself wants to use both starting places. Last but not least, a space law is still missing and liability issues have not been clarified. Potential users like the satellite operator Planet Labs, however, are looking forward to the launch site. This means that Germany will have a complete space ecosystem and will attract a lot of interest, said director Martin Polak.