The European Space Agency (ESA) has entered preliminary technical talks with Elon Musk’s SpaceX that could lead to the temporary use of its launch vehicles after the conflict in Ukraine blocked western access to Russia’s Soyuz missiles.
The privately held US competitor to Europe’s Arianespace has emerged as a key contender to close a temporary gap alongside Japan and India, but final decisions depend on the still-unsolved timetable for Europe’s delayed Ariane 6 rocket.
“I would say there are two and a half options we are discussing. One is SpaceX, that’s for sure. Another may be Japan,” ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher told Reuters.
“Japan is waiting for the inaugural flight of its next-generation rocket. Another option could be India,” he added in an interview.
“I’d say SpaceX is the most operational of those and certainly one of the backup launches we’re looking at.”
Aschbacher said the talks were in an exploratory phase and any backup solution would be temporary.
“Of course we have to make sure they are suitable. It’s not like jumping on a bus,” he said. For example, the interface between satellite and launch vehicle must be suitable and the payload must not be affected by unknown types of launch vibration.
“We are investigating this technical compatibility, but we have not yet asked for a commercial offer. We just want to make sure it is an option to make a decision about asking for a firm commercial offer” Aschbacher said.
SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.
The political fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already been a boon for SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which has dragged other customers along and cut ties with Moscow’s increasingly isolated space sector.
Satellite internet company OneWeb, a competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet company, booked at least one Falcon 9 launch in March. It has also booked an Indian launch.
On Monday, Northrop Grumman booked three Falcon 9 missions to carry NASA cargo to the International Space Station while it designs a new version of its Antares rocket, whose Russian engines were withdrawn by Moscow in response to sanctions.
Until now, Europe has depended on the Italian Vega for small loads, the Russian Soyuz for medium and the Ariane 5 for heavy missions. The next-generation Vega C debuted last month and the new Ariane 6 has been delayed until next year.
Aschbacher said a more accurate Ariane 6 schedule would be clearer in October. Only then would ESA finalize a backup plan that will be presented to the ministers of the agency’s 22 countries in November.
“But yes, there is a good chance that backup launches will be needed,” he said. “The order of magnitude is certainly a handful of launches for which we need workarounds.”
Aschbacher said the Ukraine conflict had shown that Europe’s decades-long cooperation strategy with Russia on gas supplies and other areas, including space, was no longer working.
“This was a wake-up call, that we’ve been too dependent on Russia. And this wake-up call, we have to hope that decision-makers realize as much as I do, that we really need to strengthen our European capacity and independence.”
However, he downplayed the prospect of Russia fulfilling a promise to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS).
Russia’s newly appointed space chief Yuri Borisov said in a televised meeting with President Vladimir Putin last month that Russia would withdraw from the ISS “after 2024.”
But Borisov later clarified that Russia’s plans had not changed and Western officials said the Russian space agency had not communicated any new withdrawal plans.
“The reality is that operational work on the space station continues, I would say almost nominally,” Aschbacher told Reuters. “We are dependent on each other whether we like it or not, but we have little choice.”
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