WASHINGTON — Europe, temporarily lacking its own access to space, plans to rely more on SpaceX to launch key science and navigation spacecraft while working to restore its launch capabilities.
The successful final Ariane 5 launch July 5 means that Europe temporarily has no ability to launch payloads into orbit. The Ariane 5’s successor, Ariane 6, is still in development and appears increasingly unlikely to be ready for its inaugural launch before 2024. The Soyuz is no longer available in Europe after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Vega C remains grounded after a December 2022 launch failure, and its return to flight, previously planned for late this year, is facing delays after an anomaly during a static-fire test June 28 of that rocket’s Zefiro 40 motor.
The original version of the Vega, which does not use the Zefiro 40, is scheduled to resume launches in September, but most launches on the Vega manifest are of the more powerful Vega C. European startups such as Isar Aerospace and Rocket Factory Augsburg are working on small launch vehicles whose first flights could take place before the end of the year. But for larger payloads, there are few near-term options for European organizations.
That situation led the European Space Agency to announce in October 2022 it was moving two missions to SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The first of those, the Euclid astronomy mission, was set to launch on Soyuz but instead lifted off on a Falcon 9 July 1 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Hera asteroid mission will launch on a Falcon 9 in October 2024 after being originally manifested on Ariane 6.
More European missions are likely to fly on Falcon 9. At a June 29 briefing after a meeting of the ESA Council, the agency announced that the Earth Clouds, Aerosols and Radiation Explorer, or EarthCARE, mission that has been moved from Soyuz to Vega C last October would instead likely fly on Falcon 9 in the second quarter of 2024.
While the announcement coincided with the news of the Zefiro 40 test anomaly, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said the change was not directly linked to that but instead to the failed launch last December as well as changes in the size of EarthCARE that would have required modifications to the Vega C payload fairing to accommodate it.
“With these two elements, I asked my inspector general to reassess the situation,” he said at the briefing. “The conclusion of this assessment by the inspector general was recommending to me that we should not fly with Vega C.” That was based on the earlier Vega C failure review, which recommended no changes to the configuration, like the payload fairing, on the initial series of Vega C launches.
At the same briefing, ESA officials said they were also in discussions with SpaceX for the launch of up to four Galileo satellites on Falcon 9 vehicles. “We are moving ahead with negotiations to conclude hopefully soon with SpaceX,” said Javier Benedicto, ESA’s director of navigation. That is contingent on concluding the negotiations with SpaceX as well as securing approvals from the European Union and its security agreement with SpaceX.
In a July 1 interview after the Euclid launch, Aschbacher said it will be up to the European Commission to decide when and how to launch those Galileo satellites. “We have provided all the technical information with regards to launcher compatibility, which the Commission has,” he said. “Now it’s up to them to make a decision.”
He noted that Euclid was not the first time that ESA had used the Falcon 9. Sentinel-6A, also known as Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, was a joint U.S.-Europe Earth science mission launched on a Falcon 9 in November 2020. ESA astronauts have also flown on Crew Dragon missions. However, in those cases the launches were procured and overseen by NASA, not ESA.
Aschbacher praised SpaceX for its role in launching Euclid. “SpaceX has been very proactive, very quick, very professional in providing this launch service. And I’m very happy now that this has been conducted successfully.”
He reiterated past comments that the problems with Ariane 6 and Vega C and the loss of Soyuz had created a “launcher crisis” in Europe. “We are in a crisis and we should use the opportunity to convert this crisis into actions and changes that need to be adopted in order, in the future, to develop a robust launcher system for Europe,” he said, looking beyond Ariane 6 and Vega C.
He also took the long view, expecting that this temporary gap in European launch capabilities will be forgotten in the long term, once Ariane 6 and Vega C are in regular operations. “Then this few months will be a blip,” he said. “Of course, now we are right in the midst of it and it’s difficult for everyone to accept the current situation. But you have to see this in the longer term.”