Spanish company PLD Space launched its reusable Miura-1 rocket early on Saturday from a site in southwestern Spain, carrying out Europe’s first fully private rocket launch and offering hope for the continent’s stalled space ambitions.
The startup’s test nighttime launch from Huelva came after two previous attempts were scrubbed. The Miura-1 rocket, named after a breed of fighting bulls, is as tall as a three-story building and has a 100-kilogram cargo capacity. The launch carries a payload for test purposes, but this will not be released, the company said.
Mission control video showed engineers cheering as the rocket gained altitude against the dark nighttime sky, shouting for joy and congratulating one another.
A first attempt to launch the Miura-1 rocket in May was abandoned due to strong high-altitude winds. A second attempt in June failed when umbilical cables in the avionics bay did not all release in time, halting the lift off as smoke and flames spewed out from the rocket.
Airspace, areas of the sea and roads were closed around the high-security launch site ahead of the launch.
Europe’s efforts to develop capabilities to send small satellites into space are in focus after a failed orbital rocket launch by Virgin Orbit from Britain in January. That system involved releasing the launcher from a converted Boeing 747. Competitors lining up to join the race to launch small payloads include companies in Scotland, Sweden and Germany.
Saturday’s mission on the Miura-1 demonstrator was the first of two scheduled suborbital missions. However, analysts say the most critical test of its ambitions will be the development of orbital services on the larger Miura-5, planned for 2025.
In July, the last launch of Europe’s largest rocket, the premier Ariane 5 space launcher, took place at the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
Europe has until recently depended on Ariane 5 and its 11-tonne-plus capacity for heavy missions, as well as Russia’s Soyuz launcher for medium payloads and Italy’s Vega, which is also launched from Kourou, for small ones.
The end of Ariane 5 has left Europe with virtually no autonomous access to space until its successor, Ariane 6, is launched. Russia halted access to Soyuz in response to European sanctions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the upgraded Vega-C has been grounded for technical reasons and Ariane 6 is delayed until next year.
The European Space Agency said last week that Vega-C would not return to service until the fourth quarter of 2024, following a failed mission last December.