Kiwi-Dutch company Dawn Aerospace says it has raised $3.35 million for a space plane and propulsion system that will take small satellites into low-Earth orbit - which would put it head-to-head with Rocket Lab.
The investment round was led by Icehouse's Tuhua Ventures, with investment from Derek Handley's Aera VC, as well as Erik Swan, the founder of Splunk, a Nasdaq-listed software company with a US14b market cap.
Dawn is developing 100 per cent reusable rockets. It says its Mk-II Spaceplane will be able to make multiple flights per day, "much like an aircraft".
It hopes to be able to have the first Mk-II test flights in 2020, co-founder, chief technology officer and former Rocket Lab intern Stefan Powell tells the Herald.
Successful testing of the Mk-I spaceplane was completed in August this year and development of the Mk-II has started with support from Callaghan Innovation, the company says (see video).
"The Mk-I was a vehicle flown in New Zealand [south of Auckland]. It was a modest performance small-scale aircraft, designed to show that the fundamentals of our engine technology would allow for rapid reusability. We could fly the Mk-I up to 10 times a day," Powell says.
"The Mk-I could not fly to high altitude or very high speeds due to its smaller size and modest engine. The Mk-II will be roughly 20x the weight of the Mk-1, have a much higher performance engine, more and much more fuel on-board. That will allow it to fly above 100km altitude and at very high speeds."
Powell did not want to say how much the privately-held Dawn has raised so far, or how much it will it will need to bankroll test flights of the Mk-II by 2020.
He did say that the company has received a $160,000 Project Grant from Crown agency Callaghan Innovation, however.
Dawn Aerospace also makes propulsion systems for small satellites to allow them to manoeuvre once in space. These systems are world leading in performance and capability and are non-toxic, unlike existing satellite rocket fuels, Powell says.
The $3.35m will be used to develop a satellite propulsion system to get small satellites into low-Earth orbit and begin development of its Mk-II Spaceplane.
The first Dawn Aerospace satellite propulsion system is scheduled to be launched to space from French Guiana in July.
"The MkII will be the first-ever vehicle to fly to space twice in a single day," Powell says.
"We were able to attract investment from New Zealand, Europe, and the USA which tells us there is a global need out there not currently being fulfilled. The round was highly oversubscribed, which was a nice vote of confidence."
He cites a recent report by Euroconsult which predicts 7000 smallsats will be launched to space by 2022, with the total value of the launch services industry estimated at $32b.
Dawn Aerospace was founded by five engineers: Kiwi brothers Stefan and James Powell, Jeroen Wink from the Netherlands and Tobias Knop and Robert Werner from Germany.
Its primary research, manufacturing and test facilities are located in Auckland and Delft, The Netherlands.
"We are currently 10 people but will be expanding to 15 in the next few months and will be 20-25 in 2020," Powell says.
The crowd of others seeking to enter the market includes Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit, which wants to use modified Boeing 747 as an airborne launch platform.
Rocket Lab recently raised US$140m ($206m) at a US$1b+ valuation, taking its total funding to US$288m ($425m).
Founder Peter Beck earlier told the Herald that while there are many startups targeting the small satellite market, his company is the only one to have made it to the launchpad.
Rocket Lab staged its second successful commercial launch earlier this week.