Spain’s Meteoric Rise: From Aerospace Underdog to European Powerhouse
Historically, Spain’s aerospace sector was overshadowed by giants like the U.S., Russia, and Japan, but recent technological advancements and investments have spurred its growth, making Spain the 5th largest in Europe by sales volume. The private sector, exemplified by companies like PLD Space and Pangea Aerospace, has been pivotal in driving innovation, especially in the realm of small satellite launchers. The global aerospace landscape has transformed, with both established companies and startups venturing into space exploration, satellite launches, and commercial space services.
Historically, the aerospace sector, which includes the aeronautical industry focused on aircraft construction and the space industry specializing in spacecraft for space exploration, was not very prominent in Spain. The reason was the technological, digital, and investment requirements needed for this activity, which have traditionally been led by the United States, Russia, or Japan. However, the expansion and cost reduction of technological and digital developments, along with a growing commitment to scientific research, have contributed to the growth of the aerospace sector in Spain in recent years. According to sources from ICEX, Spain ranks 5th in Europe in terms of sales volume and the number of people employed in the aerospace sector. The Spanish market achieved a turnover of 11,594 million euros in 2021, employing over 50,000 people. It is characterized by significant development and substantial investment in research and development (R&D), accounting for 10% of the sector’s turnover. The sector has experienced significant growth in the past decade (42% since 2012). It is a strategic sector for the Spanish economy, as it is intensive in R&D, and the results of research are often used in other industries. The employment it generates is of high quality. It is essential for the foreign sector, with 44% of turnover in the aeronautical subsector and 80% in the space sector (2021) coming from exports. The Spanish aerospace sector represents nearly 1% of the total Spanish GDP in 2021 and 9.3% of the industrial GDP. In Spain, 84% of the aerospace industry is concentrated in the central region of the country (mainly Madrid, Castilla-La Mancha, and Castilla y León), Andalusia, and the Basque Country, with more than 600 production centers of certified aerospace companies. The space sector in Spain, like in other countries, consists of a combination of government agencies, private companies, and universities that work to enhance the country’s capacity to participate in space missions. Spain is a member of the European Space Agency (ESA), collaborating with the CDTI (Center for Industrial Technological Development) and the National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA). Each nation’s contribution to ESA depends on its GDP, with Germany being the largest contributor (23.41%), while Spain contributes 6.87% and participates in various projects.
The segment of small satellite launchers has been developing primarily since 2010, driven by the growing market for small satellite launches and demand for institutional and commercial missions. This increased demand has generated healthy competition among various private companies aiming to achieve the first successful rocket launch into space.
In this context, Spain is notable for the company PLD Space, based in Elche, which recently achieved the launch of its rocket named Miura 1. The purpose of this rocket was to test technologies developed years ago with the goal of conducting commercial flights to orbit satellites of different sizes.
Following this achievement, the company continues to work on the development of Miura 5, a heavier prototype designed specifically for launching small satellites. The launch of Miura 5 is expected to take place in 2025 from French Guiana.
Similarly, at the national level, the Barcelona-based startup Pangea Aerospace, specializing in the development of propulsion systems for rockets and satellites, achieved a significant milestone in October 2021 by successfully igniting an aerospike engine with biomethane and liquid oxygen. This achievement opens up new possibilities for efficient and sustainable space flights, as it allows for rocket reusability and uses fuels that reduce CO2 emissions compared to conventional fuels.
Pangea Aerospace sold its propulsion system, known as the “Arcos” engine, to the American company Tehiru for 50 million euros. Furthermore, the company plans to increase its turnover by 2030, with sales exceeding 300 million euros.
In the European context, other startups are also making their initial attempts to launch rockets into orbit or are in the process of doing so. For example, the British firm Skyrora launched its Skylark L vehicle in October 2022 from Iceland, although this launch ended in failure due to a software issue, and the rocket crashed into the North Sea after reaching an altitude of approximately 300 meters. Skyrora plans to resume launches in 2023.
Another British company, Orbex, is also competing to be the first British company to launch a rocket into space. In May 2022, they unveiled ‘Prime’, a microorbital satellite launch rocket. In late 2022, Orbex completed a Series C funding round worth 45.8 million USD.
Additionally, notable German companies, Isar Aerospace and Rocket Factory Augsburg, are working on their respective projects ‘Spectrum’ (which secured 155 million euros in a Series C round in 2023) and ‘RFA ONE’ (which raised 30 million euros in 2023).
The aerospace sector has undergone a radical transformation in recent decades, evolving from an area reserved for specific institutions in major countries like the United States or Russia to an industry explored by large companies and startups from different countries worldwide.
Currently, thousands of small-sized satellites are being launched, with their purpose extending beyond radio or television communications. Ambitious business projects, such as SpaceX’s Starlink, aim to provide high-speed internet access using constellations of satellites in low Earth orbit. More recently, geopolitical conflicts involving Russia-Ukraine and North Korea have utilized space for defense and national security operations by launching satellites.
This commercialization of space has given rise to private companies interested in offering their services as satellite transporters to space. While the complexity of these projects and the substantial funding required make them inaccessible to all, it is crucial to have strong public-private collaboration to drive such projects forward, along with a top-tier financial sector.
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