KIRUNA, Sweden – The way to the reindeer herder’s spring home led him across four frozen lakes and countless snow-covered hills. When the shepherd Aslak Allas came to a light snow dust, he switched off his snowmobile and the overwhelming silence of the Swedish Arctic set in.
His reindeer, thousands of them, were nowhere to be seen. “You are very afraid of noise,” Allas explained, pointing to his vehicle.
Then he pointed to the distant hills with the birch trees, the buds of which swelled with the warming spring sun. “Well, the sound that comes from there will be something else,” sighed Mr. Allas.
That noise is expected to come with a roar next year when Sweden is scheduled to complete construction of a rocket launch complex in the frozen areas north of the Arctic Circle and enter the commercial space race, the first country in Europe to do so.
With the crystal clear air of the arctic night and a decent telescope, it’s easy to find some of the thousands of commercial shoebox-sized satellites orbiting the earth. Their numbers will explode in the next decade, powered by lightweight, reusable rockets developed by innovative US companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. He and several competitors plan to send up to 50,000 such satellites into space in the coming years, compared to less than 3,000 today.
While the United States, China, Russia, and several other countries already have spaceports, Sweden would be the first satellite launch site in Europe capable of launching spacecraft into orbit or on interplanetary trajectories. The intergovernmental European Space Agency is currently launching its traditional single-use Ariane rockets from French Guiana.
Several private European companies are designing spaceports in Europe for a new generation of smaller missiles. Portugal is planning to build one in the Azores, two remote locations have been assigned in the UK and Norway is upgrading its Andoya Space Center.
But none is as far as Sweden, which is turning an old arctic space research center into a complex with several new pads for orbital launches and landings. The Esrange Space Center will be a test site for Europe’s first reusable vertical rocket in 2022 and can also conduct engine tests.
In 1972 the Swedish government took over the base from the European Space Agency, which it no longer needed. For decades, the Swedes rented the site for smaller, slower research rockets, satellite ground control services and the launch of stratospheric balloons. As the commercial space race promises new revenue, the Swedish state-owned space company that manages the site is offering launch services to private companies looking to launch satellites into space.
“We’re a unicorn in the space business,” said Philip Pahlsson, Vice President for Strategy and Innovation of the Swedish Space Agency, referring to government ownership of the site. “But we plan to be the most impressive company in the government portfolio.”
Esrange shares a landing zone that is over 2,000 square miles – more than twice the size of Rhode Island – with a local population made up mostly of bears, wolves, reindeer, and a handful of shepherds like Mr. Allas. Should a launch fail, it is highly unlikely that human settlements will be damaged.
For certain satellites – those that are put into polar orbits – an Arctic location offers decisive advantages. These orbits, which span the North and South Poles, are ideal for Earth observation satellites because as the Earth rotates, the entire surface of the planet passes below. And it takes less energy to get into polar orbit from higher latitudes.
Given the rapidly growing space market, Europeans increasingly need launch sites for smaller rockets with smaller satellites, experts say.
“Europe really needs to build an infrastructure to get into space,” said Stefan Gustafsson, Senior Vice President at Swedish Space Corporation, in an interview at the Stockholm headquarters. “We can offer an appropriate space basis.”
This base is near Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost city and home to the largest underground iron ore mine in the world. It’s so big, in fact, that several neighborhoods are being relocated as the city slowly sinks into the excavated caves below.
A 50-foot missile stands at one of the main intersections, evidence of Sweden’s space ambitions. The space is woven into the fabric of the city.
The Swedish Institute for Space Physics is based in Kiruna, as is the Space High School for gifted teenagers. The space program at Lulea University of Technology, also in Kiruna, attracts PhD students. Students from all over Europe. A huge satellite receiver shell protruding from the forest in a huge white valley serves as a geographical landmark.
Esrange has many attributes of other spaceports – high fences and warning signs and Some used missiles are on display. But there is also a church, a visitor center and the Aurora Hotel, named after the northern lights that color the winter sky. Snow is everywhere, of course, and reindeer roam the grounds (no one knows how to get past the fences), but astronauts and lunar landers are nowhere to be found.
As Mr. Pahlsson was leading a tour of the grounds, he got slightly excited when a photographer started taking pictures. “We have contracts,” he said. “Some of our customers don’t want their equipment to be photographed.”
The launch pads for the orbital missiles, mostly stacks of construction machinery and materials at the time, tower four miles from the central location. Mr. Pahlsson pointed to a pile of sand during a tour of the site and said this was the location of their future “launch vehicle integration building”.
By the end of next year, he said, they hoped to use the launch site to test Europe’s first reusable missile, named Themis, after an ancient Greek titan who was the personification of divine order.
On that day, the main activity consisted of engine tests by two highly competitive German space start-ups, Rocket Factory Augsburg and ISAR Aerospace Technologies.
“You can actually call me a rocket scientist,” said Josef Fleischmann, 30, one of the three founders of ISAR. In 2017, he and his fellow students won an award by building the fastest pod in Elon Musk’s competition for ultra-high-speed transportation in hyperloops or travel in a vacuum tube. This caught the attention of Bulent Altan, a former Vice President of Space X, who decided to support Mr. Fleischmann and his friends.
“Now we have a $ 100 million investment in rockets.”
“The place seems remote, but for space this is the place,” said Rene Laufer, professor of space technology at Lulea University of Technology. “Besides, you don’t want to test missiles in your own garden.”
So far, Esrange has not sparked criticism from environmentalists, but that may change. Solid rocket fuels can leave a large carbon footprint, and liquid fuels pose a risk of toxicity. The clouds of exhaust gases that form after take-off and in flight are also worrying.
Swedish Space Minister Matilda Ernkrans said in an interview that she expected the base to play a key role in mapping global climate change.
Back in his humble apartment, Mr. Allas the reindeer herder would agree to that thought, and he plans to do something about it, even if his back yard is one of the few not connected in one way or another to the space industry.
Mr. Allas is more than a man with a snowmobile and lots of reindeer. He is the chairman of Talma sameby, one of the larger Sami districts in Sweden. The Sami are the last indigenous people in Europe and live in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia.
In 2019, following a call from his district, Mr Allas managed to block some of the expansion plans for the base and now impending noise pollution is in their sights.
“You could say we have to start or we will lose our customers, but reindeer herding has been around for a long time as you can imagine,” Allas said, adding that litigation seemed inevitable. “For us, the Space Corporation is the oldest invader in our country, but we have much older rights.”