Band Tim Hepher and Joey Roulette
PARIS, August 12 (Reuters) – The European Space Agency (ESA) has entered preliminary technical discussions with Elon Musk’s SpaceX that could lead to the temporary use of its launchers after the conflict in Ukraine blocked Western access to Russian Soyuz rockets.
Private US competitor to Europe’s Arianespace has emerged as a key contender to fill a temporary void alongside Japan and India, but final decisions hinge on the still-unresolved schedule 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. Another is possibly Japan,” ESA director general Josef Aschbacher told Reuters.
“Japan is awaiting the maiden flight of its next-generation rocket. Another option could be India,” he added in an interview.
“I would say SpaceX is the most operational of those and definitely one of the back-up launches we’re looking at.”
Aschbacher said the talks remained at an exploratory stage and any fallback would be temporary.
“Of course we have to make sure they are suitable. 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 are looking at this technical compatibility but we haven’t requested a commercial offer yet. We just want to make sure that would be an option in order to make a decision on the request for a firm commercial offer,” Aschbacher said.
SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.
The political fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already been a boon for SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which has swept away other customers severing ties with Moscow’s increasingly isolated space sector.
Satellite internet company OneWeb, a competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet business, has booked at least one Falcon 9 launch in March. It has also booked an Indian launch.
Northrop Grumman booked three Falcon 9 missions on Monday to ferry NASA cargo to the International Space Station as it designs a new version of its Antares rocket, whose Russian-made engines were removed by Moscow in response to sanctions .
Europe has until now depended on the Italian Vega for small payloads, the Russian Soyuz for medium ones and the Ariane 5 for heavy missions. Its next-generation Vega C debuted last month, and the new Ariane 6 has been delayed until next year.
Aschbacher said a more precise Ariane 6 timeline would be clearer in October. Only then will ESA finalize a relief plan which will be presented to ministers from the agency’s 22 countries in November.
“But yes, the likelihood of needing backup launches is high,” he said. “The order of magnitude is certainly a good handful of launches for which we would need stopgap solutions.”
Aschbacher said the conflict in Ukraine had demonstrated that Europe’s decade-long 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 that wake-up call, we have to hope that the decision makers realize it as much as I do, that we really need to build our European capability and our independence.
However, he played down the prospect of Russia pledging to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS).
Russia’s new 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 is continuing, I would say almost nominally,” Aschbacher told Reuters. “We depend on each other whether we like it or not, but we have little choice.”
(Reporting by Tim Hepher and Joey Roulette Editing by Mark Potter)
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