by Tim Hepher and Joey Roulette
PARIS (Reuters) – The European Space Agency (ESA) has begun preliminary technical discussions with SpaceX, the company of billionaire Elon Musk, which could lead to the temporary use of its launch vehicles after the war in Ukraine blocked Western access to Russian Soyuz rockets.
Arianespace’s American competitor is with Japan and India among the top candidates to solve this temporary problem, but the final choice will depend on the schedule of the Ariane 6 rocket, which has not yet been finalized.
“I would say we are discussing two and a half possibilities. One is SpaceX, that’s clear. Another is maybe Japan,” ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher told Reuters.
“Japan is awaiting the maiden flight of its next-generation rocket. Another option could be India,” he added. “I would say SpaceX is the most operational of them.”
Josef Aschbacher clarified that the discussions were at an initial stage and that any solution would be temporary.
“Obviously we have to make sure they fit. It’s not like jumping on a bus,” he said. For example, the interface between the satellite and the launch vehicle must be adequate, and the payload must not be compromised by unusual vibrations during launch.
“We are looking at this technical compatibility, but we have not requested a commercial offer yet. We just want to make sure this is a (viable) opportunity to make a decision to request a commercial offer,” Josef said. Aschbacher.
SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.
Until now, Europe has relied on the Italian Vega rocket for small payloads, the Russian Soyuz rocket for medium payloads and the Ariane 5 rocket for heavy missions. The next-generation Vega C debuted last month, and the new Ariane 6 has been delayed until next year.
According to Josef Aschbacher, the Ariane 6 schedule will be clearer in October. ESA will then be able to finalize a rescue plan, which will be presented to ministers from the agency’s 22 member states in November.
According to the agency’s director, the invasion of Ukraine showed that Europe’s cooperation strategy with Russia in gas supplies and in other areas, including space, was no longer working.
“It was a wake-up call, we have been too dependent on Russia… We really need to strengthen our European capabilities and independence.”
However, he downplayed the possibility of Russia fulfilling its promise to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS).
(Reporting by Tim Hepher and Joey Roulette; French version by Valentine Baldassari, editing by Kate Entringer)