SpaceX Wins Two ESA Launches as Europe Reconfigures Rocket Rides

SpaceX Wins Two ESA Launches as Europe Reconfigures Rocket Rides

The head of the European Space Agency has confirmed that two ESA science spacecraft will launch on American rockets. The collapse of European-Russian space relationships in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means Europe has to find new rides for spacecraft that were to launch on Russia’s Soyuz rocket at a time when Europe’s own launchers are in a state of transition. Still pending is a decision on how to launch two European Union Galileo navigation satellites. At the same time, the ESA Council has strongly reaffirmed support for  replanning the ExoMars mission without Russian participation, targeting launch in 2028.

Until February 24 when Russia invaded Ukraine, Europe’s stable of launch vehicles at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana included Vega for small payloads, the medium-class Soyuz-ST through a partnership with Russia, and the heavier-lift Ariane 5.

Upgrades to Vega and Ariane were already in the works. The new Vega-C successfully made its inaugural launch this summer and Ariane 6 is under development. Only three Ariane 5s remain. However, ESA announced earlier this week that the first Ariane 6 launch has slipped again and is not expected until at least the last quarter of 2023.

A test version of the Ariane 6 rocket on the launch pad at Europe’s Guiana Space Center, Kourou, French Guiana, October 12, 2022. Credit: ESA

Just as that transition is underway, Europe has lost access to Soyuz-ST. The European-Russian partnership, called Starsem, was one of the first casualities of sanctions imposed by Europe against Russia because of Ukraine. Two days after the invasion, the then-head of Russia’s space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, withdrew all Russian citizens from Kourou and suspended Soyuz launches in retaliation for the sanctions.

As a medium-lift launcher, Soyuz fit perfectly between Vega and Ariane 5. Three ESA science satellites — EarthCARE, Hera, and Euclid — and two EU Galileo navigation satellites were scheduled for Soyuz launches in addition to a number of commercial launches for other customers.

The Earth Cloud, Aerosol and Radiation Explorer (EarthCARE) mission is a cooperative program between ESA and JAXA. It will study how clouds and aerosols reflect solar radiation back into space and trap infrared radiation from Earth’s surface. Hera will visit the Didymos-Dimorphos asteroid pair to collect additional data in the aftermath of the impact of Dimorphos by NASA’s DART spacecraft last month as a planetary defense test. DART and Hera are part of the NASA-ESA Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment collaboration. Euclid is a near-infrared space telescope to measure the acceleration of the universe to better understand dark energy and dark matter.

ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher speaking at a press conference, October 20, 2022. Screengrab.

On October 20, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher reported that the ESA Council, composed of representatives of the agency’s 22 member states, has agreed that Euclid and Hera now will launch on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets, Euclid in 2023 and Hera in 2024. EarthCARE will launch on Europe’s own Vega-C in 2023.

ESA has a long-standing policy of preferred use of European-built rockets, with Soyuz as a second choice. Looking for launch services from other countries is rare. Aschbacher pointed out this “is a temporary measure that we do need to launch on other launchers” because of lack of availability of Soyuz and the delay in Ariane 6.

The European Union also has been using Soyuz for launching its Galileo navigation satellite system. Galileo is funded, managed and owned by the EU, with ESA responsible for design, development, and deployment. The constellation of 24 operational satellites is similar to the U.S. Global Positioning System.

ESA’s Director of Navigation Javier Benedicto said the constellation is fully functional now, but two replacement satellites will need to be launched at the end of 2023 or early 2024. Ariane 6 is the preferred launcher, but with the delay in its first launch, analyses are underway to assess non-European options if needed. A decision is expected in the first half of 2023.

Liftoff of the EU’s Galileo 27 and 28 navigation satellites on a Soyuz rocket from Kourou, French Guiana, December 4, 2021. Screengrab.

The cost of switching from Soyuz isn’t clear yet because there may be financial and legal consequences of terminating the Starsem partnership, Aschbacher explained, and ESA doesn’t know if the deposits it paid for the Soyuz launches will be returned. But ESA science program head Günter Hasinger said the shift to Falcon 9 for Euclid, at least, is good for his budget. “I think the decision to move Euclid onto Falcon has a positive effect on the science budget because we are saving quite a lot of time” compared to waiting for Ariane 6 to be ready “and also the launcher, I think you have to put the cost in perspective to what we had foreseen,” suggesting Falcon 9 is less expensive.

Another ESA program deeply impacted by the break in European-Russian space cooperation is ExoMars. ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover and Russia’s Kazachok lander were to have launched to Mars a month ago on a Russian Proton rocket. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine took place just before the lander/rover combination was to be shipped to the launch site. It is still in Italy where the rover was built and integrated onto the lander.

ESA terminated the ExoMars partnership and is replanning the mission for launch in 2028. It needs to build its own lander and will be requesting funding for that at the ESA Ministerial Council meeting next month.

Aschbacher said ESA Council members strongly reaffirmed support for ExoMars, but the final decision will be made at the Ministerial level next month. “The science with the Rosalind Franklin rover in 2028 … is still the most advanced and interesting science in the search of life on Mars. It will be the only instrument with a drill that goes down up to 2 meters into the surface that would be having this capability of searching for microbic life on Mars. There is no other similar mission planned. So even if the launch is in 2028 … this would still be top science.”

Not all European-Russian space cooperation is over, though. Both participate in the International Space Station along with the United States, Canada and Japan. That partnership has survived intact so far. ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti just returned from 170 days on the ISS where she and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev jointly conducted a spacewalk on the Russian segment, one of very few instances in which non-Russians have worn Russian spacesuits. Last year Russia docked a new science module to ISS, Nauka, that includes an ESA robotic arm.

Cristoforetti became the first European woman to command the ISS in September and in October welcomed the NASA/SpaceX Crew-4 aboard. That crew included Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina, the first Russian to fly on a U.S. spacecraft since 2002. In a post-landing press conference on Thursday, Cristoforetti referred to Kikina as “a very good friend and a person that I greatly admire and like.”

Rogozin was abruptly replaced as head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos by Yuri Borisov in July. Asked if he’d been contacted by Borisov yet, Aschbacher said “not yet, but I look forward to this whenever it happens.”

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