- By Jonathan Amos
- Scientific correspondent
A robotic capsule intended to transport cargo to and from the International Space Station is to be developed in a competition organized by the European Space Agency.
The vehicle is expected to make its maiden voyage in 2028.
This initiative marks a major change in the way Esa traditionally manages its projects.
The winner of the competition will receive funding and technical support from the agency, but the agency will have to operate the capsule on a commercial basis.
It will have to partly finance the development and then “sell” the resupply “service” to Esa, which will become the “flagship customer”.
If the venture is successful, the company behind the new capsule could be asked to upgrade it so that it can also carry Esa astronauts into orbit, still on a service basis under commercial contract.
“We will design (the capsule) in such a way that it is not a dead end, that is, it is open and can evolve into a crew vehicle in the future, if member states decide to do so,” said Esa Director General Josef Aschbacher.
“Eventually, it could also evolve (toward) other destinations, possibly to the Moon,” he told reporters.
A Tiger team was being assembled within the agency with an initial budget of €75 million (£65 million) to launch the competition, the CEO added.
The idea was enthusiastically supported by ESA member states at a summit in Seville, Spain, on Monday.
The competitive procurement model has worked extremely well for the US space agency.
NASA owned and operated all of its space vehicles. But when the famous space shuttles were retired, it chose instead to start recruiting new suppliers, offering them fixed-price contracts and encouraging them to progress through milestone payments.
This is how entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company SpaceX was born. His California-based company has since become NASA’s main provider of space transportation services. The US agency buys seats in SpaceX capsules to transport its astronauts to and from the ISS, and hires SpaceX rockets to send scientific missions far beyond Earth.
The Esa competition will attempt to reproduce this model which, in the field of transport, has allowed NASA to access faster, more innovative and less expensive space technologies.
Anna Christmann, a green politician leading the German government’s aerospace policy and chair of the Seville summit, said Esa was going through a paradigm shift.
“Public money is necessary to launch these kinds of competitions, but then it encourages investors to invest through private companies,” she commented.
“When we compare space budgets, Europe is not that different from others on the public side. The biggest difference is on the private side of investment, and that is what we want to change.”
ESA member states also committed in Seville to using this approach for long-term rocket acquisition.
Today, European launchers are in crisis. The new Ariane-6 heavy vehicle is years late and the Vega-C medium-lift rocket is out of action due to recent failures.
ESA member states have taken steps, at considerable cost, to try to get these projects back on track, but there is recognition that the current malaise must not be repeated in coming decades.
To this end, European industry will also be challenged to deliver next-generation rockets along the services model, thereby limiting the liability of European taxpayers, who have been asked to dig deep to subsidize current hardware.
Ariane-6, for example, will receive up to €340 million (£295 million) per year in support payments during the first phase of its operation.
“All 22 ESA member states agreed that we need to change the way we procure the launch vehicles of the future,” Dr Aschbacher said.
The Seville meeting also made decisions that will allow satellites to play a greater role in helping European countries achieve their net-zero emissions targets. A good example is using space data to route planes more efficiently so they contribute less to greenhouse gases.
Furthermore, Esa has opened its Zero Debris Charter to signatories. This encourages everyone operating in space not to leave behind any equipment that could collide with operational missions.
The UK, one of the big four ESA countries, will introduce a new regulatory framework early next year aimed at promoting good behavior and fostering a market for services to dispose of waste from the orbit.
“We want to reward operators who comply,” said British Science Minister George Freeman.
“If you bring back what you have installed, if you do in-flight maintenance and don’t contribute to space debris, we’re going to get you faster licensing, better insurance and faster access to financing,” he said. he told the BBC. News.