Private US competitor to European firm Arianespace has emerged as a key candidate to fill a temporary void alongside Japan and India, but final decisions hinge on the still unresolved schedule for the delayed European Ariane 6 rocket.
“I would say there are two and a half options we are discussing. 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 in an interview.
“I would say SpaceX is the most operational of them all and definitely one of the back-up launches we’re looking at.”
Aschbacher said the talks were still in an exploratory phase and any relief would be temporary.
“Of course 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 suitable and the payload must not be compromised by unfamiliar types of launch vibrations.
“We are looking into this technical compatibility, but we haven’t asked for a commercial proposal yet. We just want to make sure that would be an option in order to make a decision on the request for a binding commercial offer,” said Aschbacher. .
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 picked up other customers cutting ties with Moscow’s increasingly isolated space sector.
Satellite internet company OneWeb, a competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet business, has booked at least one Falcon 9 launch in March. It has also reserved a launch in India.
On Monday, Northrop Grumman booked three Falcon 9 missions to ferry NASA cargo to the International Space Station while it designs a new version of its Antares rocket, whose Russian-made engines were retired by Moscow in response to sanctions. .
Until now, Europe has depended on the Italian Vega for small payloads, the Russian Soyuz for medium ones and the Ariane 5 for heavy missions. Its next-generation Vega C debuted last month and the new Ariane 6 has been delayed until next year.
Aschbacher said a more precise timetable for Ariane 6 would be clearer in October. Only then will ESA finalize a contingency plan which will be presented to ministers from the agency’s 22 nations in November.
“But yes, the likelihood that backup launches will be required is high,” he said. “The order of magnitude is certainly a good handful of launches for which we would need interim solutions.”
Mr Aschbacher said the Ukrainian conflict had demonstrated that Europe’s decade-long strategy of cooperation with Russia in gas supply and other areas, including space, does not work anymore.
“It was a wake-up call, that we have been too dependent on Russia. And this warning shot, we have to hope that the decision-makers realize it as much as I do, that we really need to strengthen our European capacity and independence. “
He, however, played down the prospect of Russia keeping its promise to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS).
Newly appointed Russian 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 operationally work on the space station is continuing, I would say almost nominally,” Aschbacher told Reuters. “We depend on each other whether we like it or not, but we have little choice.”