Europe eye Musk’s SpaceX to replace Russian rockets

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule on launch pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on November 09, 2021 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Joe Raedle | Getty Images

The European Space Agency (ESA) has started preliminary technical talks with Elon Musk’s SpaceX that could result in a temporary deployment of their launch vehicles after the Ukraine conflict blocked western access to Russia’s Soyuz rockets.

The private American competitor to Europe’s Arianespace has emerged as a key contender to fill a temporary gap alongside Japan and India, but final decisions depend on the still-unresolved timeline for Europe’s delayed Ariane 6 rocket.

“I would say there are two and a half options that 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 maiden flight of its next-generation rocket. Another option could be India,” he added in an interview.

“I would say SpaceX is the more operational of these and certainly one of the backup launches that we are considering.”

Aschbacher said the talks are still in an exploratory phase and any fallback solution is temporary.

“Obviously we have to make sure they’re suitable. It’s not like jumping on a bus,” he said. For example, the interface between the satellite and the launch vehicle must be appropriate and the payload must not be affected by unfamiliar types of launch vibration.

“We are evaluating this technical compatibility but have not yet requested a commercial offer. We just want to make sure that this would be an option to make a decision on obtaining a binding 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 swept away other customers who have severed ties with Moscow’s increasingly isolated space sector.

Satellite internet company OneWeb, a competitor to SpaceX’s satellite internet company Starlink, 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the International Space Station while it designs a new version of its Antares rocket, whose Russian-made engines were withdrawn by Moscow in response to sanctions.

‘wake-up call’

Europe has so far relied on the Italian Vega for small payloads, the Russian Soyuz for medium payloads and Ariane 5 for heavy missions. The next-gen Vega C made its debut last month, and the new Ariane 6 has been pushed back to next year.

Aschbacher said a more accurate Ariane 6 schedule would be clearer in October. Only then would ESA finalize a backup plan to be presented to ministers from the agency’s 22 nations in November.

“But yes, the likelihood of backup launches being required is high,” he said. “The order of magnitude is certainly a good handful of launches for which we would need interim solutions.”

Aschbacher said the Ukraine conflict showed that Europe’s decades-long strategy of cooperation with Russia on gas supplies and other areas, including space, was no longer working.

“It was a wake-up call that we were too dependent on Russia. And with that 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 making good on a promise to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS).

Russia’s newly appointed space chief Yuri Borisov told 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 hadn’t changed, and Western officials said Russia’s space agency hadn’t communicated any new plans for withdrawal.

“The reality is that work on the space station is progressing operationally, I would say almost nominally,” Aschbacher told Reuters. “We depend on each other whether we want to or not, but we have little choice.” Europe eye Musk’s SpaceX to replace Russian rockets

Joshua Buckhalter

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