Europe seeks replacement for Russian launchers used before the war

The European Space Agency (ESA) is looking to fill the gap in its launchers as a result of the conflict in Ukraine and the blocking of Western access to Russia’s Soyuz rockets. Possible replacements include U.S.-based SpaceX, launchers from Japan or, India.

ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher described SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, as the «most operational» of those to meet the backup launches we are looking at.» He further confirmed that talks remained in an «exploratory phase.»

He stressed that the possibility that they would require backup launches is high and they are looking at interim options.

In principle the solution would be Arianespace’s private U.S. competitor to fill a temporary gap alongside Japan and India, but Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket is dependent on a schedule that has not yet been resolved. 

Aschbacher said they expect a more precise Ariane 6 schedule by October when they will conduct hot ignition tests. Then, in November, ESA will present a backup plan to ministers from the agency’s 22 nations. Aschbacher stressed that any ideas would be momentary and added that he was not concerned about the future of Ariane 6.

Europe has so far used the Italian Vega rocket for small payloads, Russia’s Soyuz for medium payloads and Ariane 5 for heavy missions.


European independence.

Aschbacher said the Ukraine conflict has shown that Europe’s decade-long strategy of cooperation with Russia on gas supplies and space no longer works.

«This was a wake-up call, that we have to really strengthen our European capabilities and independence.»

However, he played down Russia’s possible decision to part ways with the International Space Station (ISS). Russia’s newly appointed space chief, Yuri Borisov, said in a televised meeting with President Vladimir Putin that Russia would withdraw from the ISS «after 2024.» But Borisov later clarified that Russia’s plans had not changed and that the Russian space agency had not communicated any new withdrawal plans.

On the space station, the operational form has not changed. «We depend on each other, whether we like it or not, but we have few options,» Aschbacher said.  As for other options, he explained that Japan is awaiting the maiden flight of its next-generation rocket.


Preliminary technical discussions.

As the ESA director general recounted, they have to make sure that the rockets are suitable, that they have technical compatibility and the payload is not compromised by unknown types of launch vibrations. «It’s not like getting on a bus,» he said.

After that work, ESA will make a decision on whether to solicit a commercial bid.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has attracted all the attention, already winning over other customers who severed ties with Moscow’s increasingly isolated space sector amid the Ukraine conflict, but a European mission with ESA could be a significant victory for the U.S. rocket maker.

Satellite Internet firm OneWeb is a competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite Internet company and has already booked at least one Falcon 9 launch and one Indian launch.

Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman, a U.S. aerospace conglomerate, 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 recalled by Russia.

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