Spain enters the space race thanks to the Miura 1

The books and websites that tell the story of the space race have to dedicate a space starting today for what happened on October 7, 2023. Because this Saturday was the day that Spain entered the space race by to be the tenth country to place a satellite in space. Previously, only the United States, the Soviet Union, China, India, South Korea, France, Italy, New Zealand and Japan had achieved it. «We have achieved it, we have made history. “We are taking a giant leap in the country’s technology,” said an elated Raúl Torres, one of the co-founders of PLD Space, the company from Elche that built this device, the first reusable Spanish rocket. Hours later, President Pedro Sánchez also recognized it: «The launch of Miura 1, the first rocket using 100% Spanish technology, has been a success. A milestone that positions Spain’s R&D&I at the forefront of space transportation. Congratulations to PLD Space for contributing to the best Spain.

The takeoff took place at 2:19 in the morning. Two minutes earlier, the control center of the National Institute of Aerospace Technology (Inta) gave the go-ahead for the start of the automatic countdown. Then, the rocket engines have reached their maximum power to undertake a flight that lasted twelve minutes. The successive planned stages have followed each other successfully until reaching its apogee, the maximum planned height, 80 kilometers high. This means leaving the Earth’s atmosphere and reaching space, but not going into orbit, a limit established at about 100 kilometers. Thanks to the cameras placed in the roof of the rocket – the space where the cargo travels – it has been possible to observe the moment it entered microgravity, when the objects – and the astronauts when they exist – float in weightlessness. From then on the descent towards the Atlantic began, where two ships were waiting to recover it.

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In any case, this was only a secondary objective. Because the main one has been achieved: to demonstrate that the technology is available to put satellites into orbit and to learn as much as possible in order to apply these advances in the Miura 5, the rocket that is already under construction and is expected to take off from French Guiana. in 2025. The Miura 1, named in honor of the well-known Spanish bull breed, is a technological demonstrator, a testing platform that should bequeath 70% of its advances to its successor. With a height of 12 meters – the equivalent of a three-story building – and a diameter of 70 centimeters, its measurements are far from Elon Musk’s colossal Starship, which at 120 meters high is the largest and most powerful ever built. . Also the Miura 5, which will exceed 30 meters in length.

On this first flight he took with him 100 kilos of material from the German Center for Applied Space Technology and Microgravity, belonging to the University of Bremen. In those twelve historic minutes, the engineers’ gaze focused on the thrust of the engine, the aerodynamic behavior of the rocket and all the subsystems, and the monitoring of its trajectory, all under real flight conditions.

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«I am immensely happy. It was difficult for them to trust us. We did not come from a large company. We have gone through many technical and financial difficulties. “It has been a very difficult path,” Raúl Torres acknowledged in reference to the origin of PLD Space, which he founded with his partner Raúl Verdú in 2011, when both were 23 and 22 years old respectively and studying engineering.

Hours of tension

The launch process had begun hours before the launch window, scheduled between two in the morning and ten in the morning this Saturday. In the middle of the afternoon, after six o’clock, Torres himself announced the beginning of the long and complex operation with the hoisting of the rocket on the take-off ramp located at the El Arenosillo Test Center (CEDEA), in Huelva, belonging to the aforementioned INTA, dependent on the Ministry of Defense. It is the only point in the country with the necessary permits to launch rockets into space, combined with ideal weather conditions. Around eight o’clock, the loading of the propellant – the substance responsible for propelling the Miura – began. The engine is a liquid fuel Teprel-B powered by kerosene and liquid oxygen (KeroLOX). In 2021, it became the first European-developed KeroLOX rocket engine with spaceflight qualification.

Around that same time it was announced that the latest weather report was favorable. The takeoff maneuver requires very precise conditions: the surface wind speed does not exceed 20km/h, the atmosphere must also be calm at altitude and there must be no nearby storm. As the clock approached two in the morning, all systems began to be checked. Propulsion, avionics, hydraulics… Then a small delay in the scheduled launch time was announced. It would be at 2:15 a.m. After the approval of the INTA control at 2:17, the countdown began. “Come on, guys,” Torres exclaimed. And two minutes later, the Miura took off. «We are going to celebrate it. We just showed who we are. This is a key moment. I think that now it will be easier to get financing,” he said, concluding with his sights set on the future, on the Miura 5. “This is just the beginning.”

The two previous attempts

Sending a ship to space is a very complicated task. The Miura has had to wait for the third attempt to complete her mission. In the first, which took place on May 31, it was the wind at altitude that forced the rehearsal to be cancelled. In the second, on June 17, it was a technical problem just half a second from the end of the countdown. “We have had an automatic Abort due to the non-release of the avionics umbilicals – a type of cables that are attached to the ship and must be separated from it on takeoff – the rest were free and the engine was at nominal thrust,” he explained. Towers.

The best thing about that failed test was that the rocket was not damaged. The real problem then was the arrival of summer. “We postpone the launch from September due to the mandatory compliance with the regulations in relation to the prevention of forest fires, the high temperatures in Huelva and the necessary coordination with the Civil Guard,” they explained. After these dates, the rocket returned to its launch base on September 5, where it waited until this Saturday.

These setbacks are very common in the space industry. It happened to NASA and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and early 1960s. So, at the dawn of humanity’s first steps off the planet, errors were very frequent. More than half of the attempts ended in an explosion, according to the book ‘Interstellar Travel. History of the Voyager probes’. The aforementioned Starship is awaiting its third test after the first was suspended due to a frozen part and exploded four minutes into the second.

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