New Space and Tech

Dawn Aerospace Leadership Talks To SpaceRef About The Mk-II Aurora

By Elizabeth Howell
April 7, 2023
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Dawn Aerospace Leadership Talks To SpaceRef About The Mk-II Aurora
Mk-II Aurora

Editor’s note: Earlier this week Dawn Aerospace announced that it had completed the first rocket powered flight of its Mk-II Aurora. SpaceRef’s Elizabeth Powell had a chance to ask Dawn Aerospace CEO & Co-founder Stefan Powell (and CFO, James Powell) some questions.

SpaceRef: How does the Mk-II Aurora fit into your company’s plans?

CEO & Co-founder Stefan Powell: Dawn Aerospace is a space-transportation company. We provide technologies that fly our customers satellites to space, move them around in space, and deorbit them at the end of their lifetime. To deliver on this we are developing vehicles – specifically rocket-powered planes – to provide responsive, reusable, and low-cost space flight.

SpaceRef: What makes Dawn Aerospace different than the competition?

Stefan Powell: The current single/low-use rockets for small satellite launches are expensive and infrequently available, and we believe that our vehicles will fundamentally change how we are able to access space and the upper atmosphere.

SpaceRef: How big is Mk-II Aurora now compared to a year ago?

Stefan Powell: The vehicle itself is the same dimensions but has we’ve made significant advancements in capability. Notably the transition from jet engines, which we used to conduct 48 initial flights, to our imminent rocket-powered tests, but also developments in a number of other areas including controllability, reliability, and general airworthiness.

SpaceRef: What is your company’s unique offering to the marketplace?

Stefan Powell: The mission of the Mk-II Aurora is to fly to space twice in a day and, in doing so, demonstrate rocket-powered systems can be as reusable as commercial aircraft. What is unique is that we start the development vehicle development with an aircraft which is rapid reusable, and continually increase the performance until we reach our mission. By starting with high reusability, not high performance, we can reuse the test hardware 10’s or even hundreds of times, enabling rapid and dramatically lower-cost development as well as a low-cost product at the end of it all. We have already flown the first airframe 48 times and will likely use it 100 times before we finally retire it to upgrade.

Mk-II can also offer access to altitudes that have seldom been investigated. The area from 50-80 kilometres altitude is often neglected – it’s an atmospheric layer between the stratosphere and the thermosphere that scientists know little about. It can’t be accessed with balloons or satellites. But this part of the atmosphere still has significant implications for things like climate modelling, or even short-term weather modelling. Our ability to predict the weather is quite dependent on this part of the atmosphere that we don’t know very much about.

SpaceRef: What customers are you attracting – or hope to attract?

Stefan Powell: Aside from being a key technology demonstrator, the Mk-II holds significant commercial promise as a suborbital vehicle, spanning a wide range of applications such as earth monitoring, microgravity research, disaster management, and in-situ atmospheric measurements – providing unprecedented enhancements to weather and climate models. Mk-III, our next-generation, two-stage orbital vehicle, will be capable of taking over 1 ton on a suborbital flight or delivering a 250 kg satellite to LEO with an expendable second stage.

SpaceRef: What signed contracts can you disclose?

Stefan Powell: We’re yet to announce signed customers for Mk-II. Our in-space propulsion systems – used to manoeuvrer satellites in space – have seen significant commercial traction and we have Dawn systems on eleven operational satellites. Our publicly announced propulsion customers include Blue Canyon, Lynk, D-Orbit and Pixxel. We have development grants with ESA, the European commission, The New Zealand Space Agency, and other New Zealand government agencies (Callaghan Innovation). To date, we have closed over $20M USD in contracts for propulsion systems and associated development grants.

SpaceRef: What is your current employee headcount now versus a year ago?

Stefan Powell: In the last year, we’ve roughly doubled – from the start of 2022 to 2023 we grew from 55 to 101 full-time staff.

SpaceRef: Is Dawn Aerospace cash flow positive? How much have your revenues grown (percentage-wise) over last year?

CFO James Powell: Our in-space propulsion offering is a core strength to our business as it’s generated real revenue and from very early days, particularly by space industry standards. We’re investing heavily in R&D and therefore do take on VC as and when we deem appropriate. Our long-term trend for revenue growth is a bit over doubling every year. As of July 2022, just before our Series A closed, we had had more cash come into the company from revenue than VC.

SpaceRef: Where do you hope to be in the next couple of years?

Stefan Powell: It’s an exciting couple of years ahead for Dawn Aerospace. We’ll be working to progress our orbital vehicle, the Mk-III, taking our in-space propulsion customers further afield and on more complex missions, growing our team and scaling manufacturing capability to support production at scale.

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