French playing catch-up in the commercial space-race

France has a long established and sophisticated traditional space industry, but that will count for little in the new era of the space commerce if adequate financial backing for private-sector French companies is not forthcoming.

Posté le jeudi, mars 30 2023
French playing catch-up in the commercial space-race

In late January, on the remote Scottish island of Unst, French satellite launching company Latitude took one giant leap forward in its quest to develop a commercial micro-launcher with the successful test of its propulsion system.   

In the coming years the Reims-based company will use the system to take its 17-meter-long Zepher rocket into orbit, along with a payload of up to 100 kgs worth of mini and nano satellites. Latitude claims it can put customer’s satellites into orbit for between €30,000 and €35,000 per kilo, that’s half the price of US/New Zealand rival Rocket Lab, according to the French spacetech startup’s founder and CEO Sanislas Maximin ─ an important detail in the burgeoning commercial-space sector where France’s status as a top-tier nation is far from secure.

Illustrious past
France is the leading space nation in Europe (excluding Russia). Paris is home to the headquarters of the European Space Agency and, since its first flight in 1979, French-designed Ariane rockets have performed over 250 launches from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana and carried more than 450 satellites into space, including the James Webb telescope on Christmas Day 2021. But in the private-sector space economy ─ to date dominated by Elon Musk’s Space X and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin ─ the country is very much still stuck on the launchpad.   

Things are moving at a quick pace in the sector. Sweden has plans to build Europe’s main spaceport for personal suborbital spaceflight for space tourism, the UK has Saxavord (where the Latitude rocket propulsion system was tested) and Portugal is building a spaceport in the Azores, yet there are currently no plans for facilities of this kind in France.

“Many sectors can benefit from spacetech,” explained Rasika Fernando, head of aerospace investment at Bpifrance, who estimates that “we have barely scratched the surface of the commercial potential of the space sector.”

Up until recently, satellites were deployed 22,000 miles above the Earth and typically weighed 3,000 kgs or more – making them very expensive pieces of equipment to own and operate. “With New Space, we can put satellites into lower orbit for a wider range of public and private clients,” added Fernando.

The paradigm shift in the sector since the space shuttle was retired over a decade ago has still to be fully reckoned with

The micro and nano satellite market has grown exponentially in recent years, the former category (weighing between 1 and 25 kilograms) especially, with “their comparatively limited performance compensated by their use in constellations, which gives them the ability to carry out functions beyond the scope of traditional satellites,” wrote plasma-rocket scientist Antoine Tavant in 2021. The New Space era is giving scientists like Antoine previously unimagined access to satellite technology.

Financial analysts agree that the space industry will be worth at least $1 trillion by 2030, and in 2021 the French government, acknowledging the strategic importance of being a major player in it, allocated €1.5 billion to the space economy in its multi-billion France 2030 Plan.

The plan aims to achieve several short-term objectives including the development of reusable mini-launchers, microsatellites, constellations (groups of satellites networking to perform specific tasks) and technological and service innovations that will facilitate the space industry. This, it’s worth noting, is separate from the ESA budget, whose Ariane 6 rocket is set for its maiden flight in 2023.

“In France, we have highly advanced skills related to space research and development,” stresses Jean-Luc Maria, the co-founder of Exotrail, a French space-tech startup specializing in space logistics, “we have fertile technological ground in which grow the leaders of the space economy.”

Paris, we have a money problem   
From a funding point of view, things are a lot less rosy. The French space industry has some way to go to convince investors to come along for the ride, notably for the series A funding which can make the difference in getting a promising project off the ground. Spacetech can be a hard sell: the industry covers complex subjects, development times are lengthy, and a return on investment is neither rapid nor assured. It’s no wonder investors are skittish.

According to research by Space Capital published by The Financial Times, worldwide, investment in the sector shrank by 58% to $20.1 billion in 2022 after a record year in 2021. The reason? The current difficult economic situation, which has given rise to a desire among the investment community to see profits arrive sooner rather than later.

Financial analysts agree that the space industry will be worth at least $1 trillion by 2030

At present, France only has two space-tech investment funds in operation: Expansion Ventures and Cosmicapital. The former was cofounded last year by Charles Beibeder, CEO of Audacia, and François Chopard, the CEO of aerospace-accelerator Starburst. When it launched a target of €300 million for 2022 and 2023 was set, which now looks to have been overly ambitious. The latter fund, launched by France’s national space studies center (CNES), Bpifrance and VC fund Karista, has in two years only managed to raise €38 million.

“If the goal truly is to develop the technology that will allow French space-tech companies to attract international customers, it’s vital a greater number of funds are established to help our startups grow,” warns Rasika Fernando. It’s a question of sovereignty.”

All the more reason for space startups to take advantage of the France 2030 Plan, under which Bpifrance has launched tenders for four projects: the development of mini and micro launchers; propulsion systems capable of launching them into orbit; orbital surveillance systems; the development and manufacture of satellite constellations. These projects are, in the main, designed to respond to the needs of the French Ministry of Defense, as well as fill order books.

Brave new world
So as not to be left behind in this new era, in 2021 a group of European startups got together to establish the YEESS Syndicate with the purpose of representing emerging space-sector companies and support the space ambitions of Europe.

“There are no internationally agreed upon rules governing space commerce, but of late there have been mutterings, and in the next decade things will start to come together. Companies with a viable business model are the ones that will stand out,” explained the Exotrail boss.

France’s achievements in becoming a major player in space in the 20th century are worthy of high praise, but the paradigm shift in the sector since the space shuttle was retired over a decade ago has still to be fully reckoned with.

Which is why companies like Latitude and Exotrail need to be fully backed so they can realize their potential. Exotrail is not coy about its ambitions, “When it comes to propulsion, we don’t have many rivals offering an equivalent service, but in terms of orbital transport, the market is much more open. We can rely on the support of external partners, but also the technical innovations that come with acquisitions, in order to accelerate our development and manufacturing.” commented the CEO. “The financing climate might be less advantageous at the moment, but opportunities, we hope, will present themselves.”