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Exotrail launches a minibus to transport small satellites into space

Artistic impression of the SpaceVan™.

New Space is on the rise in France. Not a week goes by without a start-up contacting the National Center for Space Studies to showcase its activity. Likewise, fundraising or contract signing announcements are on the rise. In addition to major players such as ArianeGroup, Airbus, Thales Alenia Space or Eutelsat, an entire ecosystem of young companies is developing with the most diverse projects.

Latest announcement, that of Exotrail, Tuesday 12 April. This company, founded five years ago, has reached an agreement with the American SpaceX. In October 2023, a Falcon 9 rocket from the company founded by Elon Musk will launch the SpaceVan into orbit. a vehicle the size of a small refrigerator that can carry nanosatellites and microsatellites, up to a total payload of 400 kilograms.

Once in low orbit, at an altitude of 500 kilometers, the rocket will release the SpaceVan which, thanks to its electric propulsion, will place any object at its destination. This allows very small satellites to reduce their launch costs by grouping together for transport.

Above all, they save propulsion, as the engine does not have to be used to reach the destination. It will be used for the other phases of the satellite’s life, to stabilize it, avoid collisions and return it to the atmosphere. “We will be space logistics in a sense, kind of like on Earth groups like FedEx, UPS or DHL”summarizes David Henri, 28, one of the company’s four co-founders, also director of products and strategy.

“Last mile logistics”

This first orbital transport vehicle (VTO) will only be able to transport a few tens of kilograms. The other three, scheduled for 2024, will increase to several hundred. The target market is for constellations of microsatellites for telecommunications, Earth observation, maritime surveillance or the Internet of Things. Fields in strong growth, as the aim is to launch 30,000 satellites within ten years, mainly of small size. “You have a drastic increase in space requirements coupled with a reduction in the cost of access to space, explains Mr. Henry. It is also becoming easier to send satellites there. † A dozen companies around the world are active in this field, be it in the United States, Germany, Australia and Italy.

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“This last mile logistics generates a lot of enthusiasm, but the project leaders still have to prove themselves”, tempers Maxime Puteaux. For this industry advisor from Euroconsult, “the first examples show that the development of this new type of vehicle remains complex, and its use adds an extra risk to the satellite, which requires two consecutive means of transport, the pitcher and the tugboat”. It is up to the logistics employee to show “the real added value for the towed satellite » brought by his vehicle compared to a normal launch.

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