Europe could turn to SpaceX to replace Russian rockets

The repercussions of the war in Ukraine invite themselves to the European Space Agency (ESA). The organization has started technical preliminary discussions with SpaceX, the company of billionaire Elon Musk, which could lead to the temporary use of its launchers as a replacement for Russian Soyuz rockets.

Arianespace’s US competitor is along with Japan and India among the top candidates to solve this temporary problem, but the final choice will depend on the timetable for the Ariane 6 rocket, which has not yet been finalized. “I would say SpaceX is the most operational of them,” ESA director general Josef Aschbacher told Reuters. The American company has already taken advantage of this blockage by replacing Soyuz for OneWeb launches.

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Technical compatibility

“I would say that we are discussing two and a half options. One is SpaceX, that’s clear. Another is maybe Japan,” he said, recalling that the archipelago “is waiting for the maiden flight of its next-generation rocket”. And to add: “Another option could be India”. Josef Aschbacher clarified that the discussions were at a preliminary stage and that any solution would be temporary.

“Of course we have to make sure they fit. It’s not like jumping on a bus,” he said. For example, the interface between the satellite and the launch vehicle must be appropriate and the payload must not be compromised by unusual vibrations during takeoff. “We are looking at this technical compatibility, but we haven’t requested a commercial offer yet. We just want to make sure that this is a (viable) option to make a decision on requesting a commercial offer,” said Josef. Aschbacher.

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Waiting for Ariane 6

Until now, Europe has depended on the Italian Vega rocket for small payloads, the Russian Soyuz rocket for medium payloads and the Ariane 5 rocket for heavy missions. The next generation of Vega C debuted last month and the new Ariane 6 has been delayed until next year. According to Josef Aschbacher, the Ariane 6 schedule will be clearer in October. ESA will then be able to finalize a rescue plan which will be presented to the ministers of the Agency’s 22 member countries in November.

According to the agency’s director, the invasion of Ukraine demonstrated that Europe’s strategy of cooperation with Russia in gas supplies and in other areas, including space, was not working more. “It was a wake-up call, we have been too dependent on Russia… We really need to build our European capabilities and independence.” He, however, downplayed the possibility of Russia fulfilling its promise to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS).

With Reuters (Tim Hepher and Joey Roulette; French version Valentine Baldassari, editing by Kate Entringer)

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