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A private US competitor to Europe’s Arianespace has emerged as a key contender to fill the temporary gap alongside Japan and India.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has begun preliminary technical discussions with Elon Musk’s SpaceX that could lead to the temporary use of its launch vehicles after the Ukraine conflict blocked Western access to Russia’s Soyuz rockets.
Private US competitor Europe’s Arianespace has emerged as a key contender to fill the temporary gap alongside Japan and India, but final decisions hinge on the still-unsettled timetable for Europe’s delayed Ariane 6 rocket.
“I would say there are two and a half options that we are discussing. One is SpaceX, which is clear. The other is maybe Japan,” ESA CEO Josef Aschbacher told Reuters.
“Japan is waiting for the inaugural flight of its next-generation rocket. Another option could be India,” he added in the interview.
“I would say SpaceX is the more operational of the two and certainly one of the backup launches we’re looking at.”
Aschbacher said the talks remain in the exploratory phase.
“Obviously we have to make sure they’re appropriate. 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 unknown types of launch vibrations.
“We’re looking into this technical compatibility, but we haven’t asked for a commercial offer yet. We just want to make sure it’s an option so we can make a decision to ask for a firm commercial offer,” Aschbacher said.
SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has already upset other customers who cut ties with Moscow’s increasingly isolated space sector amid the Ukraine conflict, but the high-profile European mission could be seen as a major victory for the US rocket maker.
Aschbacher emphasized that any fallback would be temporary, but added that he was not worried about Ariane 6’s future.
Satellite Internet company OneWeb, a competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite Internet business, booked at least one Falcon 9 launch in March. It 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 Moscow pulled in response to sanctions.
‘WAKE UP CALL’
Until now, Europe has depended on Italy’s Veza for small payloads, Russia’s Soyuz for medium and Ariane 5 for heavy missions. Its next-generation Vega C debuted last month, and the new Ariane 6, designed in two versions to replace the Ariane 5 and Soyuz, has been delayed until next year.
Aschbacher said a more precise plan for Ariane 6 will be clearer by October after the current burn test. ESA would then finalize a backup plan that will be presented to ministers from the agency’s 22 countries in November, he said, adding that the latest Ariane 6 delay was not the result of any significant new obstacle.
“But yes, the likelihood of needing backup starters is high,” he said. “An order of magnitude is certainly a good handful of launches for which we would need an interim solution.”
Aschbacher said the Ukraine conflict showed that Europe’s ten-year strategy of cooperation with Russia in 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 in that wake-up call, we have to hope that decision-makers realize, as I do, that we really need to strengthen our European capability and independence.” .”
However, he played down the prospect of Russia fulfilling 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 continues, I would say almost nominally,” Aschbacher told Reuters. “We are dependent on each other whether we like it or not, but we have no choice.”