Exotrail signs a launch agreement with Isar Aerospace

WASHINGTON — Exotrail, a French company developing orbital transfer vehicles, has signed a contract with German launch vehicle developer Isar Aerospace for multiple launches over the next few years.

The companies announced Nov. 3 that they had signed a launch services agreement to launch Exotrail’s spacecraft on Isar’s Spectrum rocket on multiple missions between 2024 and 2029. The launches will take place from Andøya, in Norway, and Kourou, French Guiana. The companies did not disclose specific launch numbers or the value of the deal.

Exotrail will use the launches for a service it calls spacedrop to deliver small satellites to desired orbits. This uses the Space Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV) the company is developing, which in turn uses electric propulsion systems and software the company currently offers to other customers.

“The contract with Isar Aerospace allows us to consolidate our space delivery service by offering more launch opportunities to customers looking for tailor-made and competitive access to LEO and GEO orbits”, said Jean-Luc Maria, CEO of Exotrail, in a press release.

Exotrail is mainly known for its work on electric propulsion systems. This included an agreement announced in September with Airbus to supply Exotrail thrusters for future Airbus Earth observation satellites.

A service like spacedrop, however, has long been part of the company’s plans. “When we started in 2017, we did it as a logistics company,” David Henri, Exotrail’s chief product officer, said in a September interview with World Satellite Business Week. “People know us mostly for propulsion, but we’ve been doing more than that since the beginning.”

He said Exotrail stands out from other orbital transfer vehicle developers because of its in-house development of electric propulsion. This translates to increased payload capacity and performance, including the ability to perform larger orbital plane changes that would be desirable for customers deploying a constellation of satellites.

“The market wants aircraft changes and access to GEO. Today is where we see the big interest in OTVs,” he said. “I don’t see how to close a business case for an OTV using chemical propulsion.”

Henri argued that transfer vehicles like space vans are needed even with the proliferation of small launch vehicles that offer the promise of dedicated launches. That’s especially true, he said, for companies working on relatively small constellations that might require launching 100 kilograms of satellites at a time. “Buying 100 kilograms on a one-ton micro launcher is not enough to secure your destination,” he said. “You will be considered a carpool customer.”

The Isar Spectrum, which belongs to this class of small one-tonne launchers, is under development and is expected to make its first launch in 2023. “Exotrail is one of Europe’s leading NewSpace companies. We are delighted to welcome them aboard Spectrum flights,” Daniel Metzler, CEO of Isar Aerospace, said in a statement. “We are proud to further expand our launch manifesto.”

Exotrail isn’t the first OTV developer to sign a launch deal with Isar. In June, D-Orbit, an Italian space logistics company, announced that it had reserved a Spectrum launch for its ION Satellite Carrier vehicle which is expected to take place as soon as 2023.

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