The International Space Station has a monopoly on in-space research, but the huge surge of interest in commercial space is starting to change that. Atmos Space Cargo, a German startup, is looking to open up the opportunities for life sciences research and manufacturing in orbit with its return capsules that will deliver cargo from space back to Earth.
The company calls the opportunity “microgravity on demand,” a nascent market segment that has huge potential. Atmos’ service is tailored specifically for life sciences, according to the startup’s website, which can include research into monoclonal antibodies, stem cells, artificially grown human tissue, and protein crystallization.
Investors appear to agree with Atmos’ approach, with the startup announcing this week that it has closed a €4 million ($4.3 million) oversubscribed seed round. The round was led by High-Tech Gründerfonds and the Amadeus APEX Technology Fund, with additional participation from Seraphim Space, E2MC, Ventis and another.vc.
The company is developing a return capsule aptly named Phoenix, a spacecraft with a payload capacity of 100 kilograms. The Phoenix capsules are designed to operate on orbit for missions ranging from three hours to three months. Atmos has also developed what it calls “inflatable atmospheric decelerators” (IADs), a return solution that acts as both a heat shield, protecting the cargo from Earth’s atmosphere, and a high-velocity parachute.
The IADs are so lightweight that they can be retrofitted for entire microlaunchers, rocket stages, or spacecraft to make them reusable, Atmos says on its website.
The funding will see Atmos through a first demonstration mission scheduled for the end of 2024, during which the company will attempt to return a microgravity experiment from low Earth orbit.
“We’ve heard time and time again that the real bottleneck in space life sciences R&D is the time taken to launch and return from the ISS, which makes research far too slow,” Maureen Haverty, Seraphim Space’s VP, said in a statement. “Atmos’ free flyer and return will solve this, eventually scaling to frequent and flexible return from space.”
The company is led by CEO Sebastian Klaus. Mysteriously, Atmos’ other co-founders have not been publicly disclosed. The company has been operating since at least 2021, when it was awarded early funding from the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Centre.
Atmos is not the only startup to target microgravity on demand. U.S.-based Varda Space Industries is aiming to produce high-value materials, specifically pharmaceuticals, in orbit – and the company just launched its first demonstration mission earlier this month. Across the Atlantic, Space Forge in the U.K. is also developing a spacecraft and satellite reentry system for in-space manufacturing applications.