An odd consequence of Virgin Orbit's failure to achieve orbit on Monday is that the mission was expected to be the first orbital launch from Europe. There is sort of a race to achieve that milestone and other companies are approaching ready to claim that milestone.
There are two companies that appear to be in the running to be first. First, the German company Rocket Factory Augsburg or RFA, which announced an arrangement on Wednesday that its debut launch will take place from SaxaVord Spaceport, which is located on the Shetland Islands - the northernmost point in the United Kingdom. The press release summarizes:
The commercial Spaceport in Shetland is ideally located for RFA to launch payloads at high cadence into polar, sun-synchronous orbits. Existing logistics and infrastructure, launch readiness, as well as rapid implementation and matching mentality were key factors why RFA chose to partner with SaxaVord. With the multi-year partnership, which includes investments in the double-digit million pound range, RFA is securing its first flight launch site in order to be able to provide its services individually and flexibly to customer requirements.
The launch pad and launch stool were fully completed by the end of 2022. The RFA launch pad is therefore the first for vertical orbital rocket launches in the UK and mainland Europe. In the future, the launch pad will not only be used for orbital launches, but for testing and qualification of the RFA ONE core stages. These tests are expected to begin in mid-2023. The first launch will then be into a 500 km high sun-synchronous orbit.
In addition to the stage testing starting by mid-year, the company says the debut launch of its RFA One vehicle could occur by the end of '23.
You've got to love the looks of the SaxaVord spaceport.
The second big contender might be a surprise. Norway is a contender with Isar Aerospace, which has an agreement to launch from the Andøya Spaceport in Norway, NRK reports. Andøya , or the "Andøy municipality" is rougher-looking terrain than the SaxaVord spaceport but has been in development and claims they'll be able to support launches by the end of this year.
Finally, moving across the globe to China, a company called CAS which is
jointly owned by the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences, released a proposed line of rocket designs they refer to as "Powered
Arrow" which appeared on
the Twitter feed of China 'N Asia Spaceflight. CAS has successfully reached orbit with a solid-fueled rocket called
ZK-1A, so they have more credibility than companies that have never made
orbit, but the lineup was a bit jarring.
In a move reminiscent of another Chinese company earlier in the year, OrienSpace, it looks very derivative of American launchers. Left to right, they look like (skip the first, which is their ZK-1A) a miniature versions of an Atlas V, an Antares, a Falcon 9, a Falcon Heavy, skip the second to last, and at the far right that looks like a New Shepard capsule. A picture of solid models also Tweeted by China 'N Asia Spaceflight gives a better perspective on sizes and strong similarities for a few of those.