European Spaceflight Sees Paradigm Shift at Summit

The recent ESA-EU Space Summit held in Seville, Spain, brought attention to the evolving future of the European Space Agency (ESA) and European spaceflight. The summit highlighted the need for a paradigm shift in Europe’s space ambitions, particularly in relation to the gap between Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 launch vehicles. The focus was on fostering competition and commercial input to define Europe’s participation in the global space economy.

The summit resulted in two major projects being announced. The first project is a competition for new launch vehicles that will succeed the current Ariane 6 and Vega-C programs. This competition will cover all categories of launchers, from micro to heavy. The second project aims to develop a new cargo vehicle for transportation to and from the International Space Station (ISS), with a target launch date of 2028.

Josef Aschbacher, the Director General of ESA, acknowledged the current “European launcher crisis” and emphasized the importance of rectifying past mistakes. Both Ariane 6 and Vega-C are currently not ready for launch, with Ariane 6 being four years behind schedule. Aschbacher mentioned that a long-duration core stage engine test firing is planned for the end of November 2023, which will provide a better estimate of the launch date for Ariane 6.

Funding for the launcher competition will be in the same region as the annual funding for future Ariane 6 and Vega-C launches. This funding will secure the program for 42 launches each, instead of the current 15. The aim of the “European Launcher Challenge” is to open up the market to competition from commercial launchers, leading to greater cost-effectiveness and resilience.

The European cargo transport vehicle was highlighted as a missing piece in Europe’s participation in space exploration. In the past, Europe contributed to resupply missions to the ISS with the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). A new competition will inspire industry to provide a new vehicle in a short time frame. ESA plans to purchase a cargo return vehicle that will fly to the ISS by 2028, carrying payloads and returning with cargo.

There is also potential for the cargo transporter to serve future space stations beyond the ISS. Airbus, in collaboration with U.S. companies Voyager Space and Northrop Grumman, is working on building Starlab, a competitor in NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations program. There is even the possibility of the cargo vehicle evolving into a human-rated vehicle to transport astronauts to and from space.

ESA has implemented a “tiger team” to initiate the competitive procurement process for the cargo vehicle. The first phase will involve three companies competing for funding of 75 million euros from ESA’s 2022 budget. Funding for the second phase will be considered at the next ministerial meeting in 2025.

ESA aims to align its program with NASA’s commercial cargo program, which has seen success with SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. The agency will serve as the anchor customer and specify the services required, such as docking and re-entry capability.

The summit marks a significant step towards the future of European spaceflight. With a focus on competition, commercialization, and technological advancements, Europe aims to secure its position in the global space economy and expand its presence in space exploration.