A Swiss start-up aiming to build a liquid-hydrogen-powered hypersonic rocket plane that would transport goods anywhere in the world within two hours has attracted 26.8m Swiss francs ($29m) of seed funding.
Destinus’ unmanned autonomous “hyperplane” would fly in near-space, where air resistance is very low, at Mach 15 (18,522 km/h) — 15 times the speed of sound — cutting the usual travel time from, say, Frankfurt to Sydney from 20 hours to 105 minutes. And it would do so without any carbon emissions by using liquid green hydrogen.
The company plans to begin commercial operation in 2025 with a one-tonne payload, with a more advanced version carrying 100 tonnes by 2029.
Destinus is owned and run by Russian entrepreneur Mikhail Kokorich, a former sheep herder who has been likened to Elon Musk for his commercial space ventures and recently referred to himself as a “crazy Siberian”.
Kokorich’s personal history is colourful, to say the least. After making a fortune in industrial water treatment, he launched Dauria Aerospace, Russia’s first private space company, which built satellites for Roscosmos, the country’s equivalent of NASA.
But because of his financial support for the Russian opposition — and the subsequent pressure from the Putin government — Kokorich emigrated to the US in 2012, where he set up two space-related companies, satellite advisory services firm Astro Digital, and Nasdaq-listed Momentus, which aims to shuttle satellites between different orbits.
The latter company raised $100m in venture capital and was once valued at $4bn, but as a Russian, he was seen as a national security threat by the Trump administration and was forced to sell his shares in the business. He then moved to Switzerland in 2021 and started up Destinus.
The Destinus hyperplane would first travel as a plane, powered by a liquid-hydrogen engine, until it reached an altitude of 20km, then its rocket engine would be ignited, taking it to a height of 60km above Earth, where it would then fly through the mesosphere.
According to a blog post on the company’s website, Kokorich said he believes he will need more than 1bn Swiss francs before Destinus becomes profitable. Yet he adds that it has been easier to raise funding for it than his previous companies.
“Air freight — unlike space travel — is a real market: it’s $60bn for express shipments alone, with regular air freight comprising another $100bn, and both sectors are growing strongly. It’s quite possible that one day passenger aviation will be added to the list, with more than $600bn,” he said.
An initial car-sized prototype called Jungfrau (“virgin” in German) was successfully flown for five minutes at subsonic velocities in November, and a bus-sized model is coming soon, according to the Destinus website.
Venture funds from Europe, North America, Latin America and Asia participated in the $29m funding round, which will be used to “continue the development of our hydrogen airbreathing and rocket engines and test the first supersonic flights powered by hydrogen engines in the next 12-18 months”.
Cornelius Boersch, the founder of Destinus investor Conny & Co, who is now a board member, said: “I was an investor in Mikhail’s previous company, and his development pace is incomparable. The team began flight testing with a prototype less than six months after the company’s foundation. In addition to his technical and engineering experience, Mikhail is also one of the most organized and structured founders I have ever met.”
The former German vice-chancellor Philipp Rösler, who is now chairman of Destinus’ advisory board, added: “It is breathtaking to see a future in which travel anywhere in the world in 1-2 hours will be available. Most importantly, the hyperplane under development will use liquid hydrogen to fuel its engines. That gives the great opportunity to fly fast and at the same time be carbon neutral. The only emission of such engines is water.”
What Destinus does not reveal is that burning hydrogen in air also results in emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), which are indirect greenhouse gases.