ESA Considers SpaceX Launch Partnership

The space industry hasn’t yet completely resolved the gap in access to launch stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To get some of its stranded sats back on their mission timelines, ESA has begun preliminary talks with SpaceX, Reuters reports.

The story so far: The war in Ukraine has poked holes in Europe’s spaceflight plans over the past few months, as sanctions on Russia cut off all access to Soyuz flights. ESA’s Ariane 6 rocket is poised to fill a lot of that missing launch capacity, but delays in development have sparked concerns over that capability in the near term.

  • Ariane 6 was meant to fly this summer, but its debut flight has now been bumped to 2023.

Across the pond: ESA has opened exploratory discussions with SpaceX to launch missions aboard the Falcon 9 workhorse while Ariane 6 is still on the ground. ESA head Josef Aschbacher emphasized that the agency is in the beginning stages of these talks and that nothing is yet official. Moving a payload between launchers, after all, is more complicated than just signing a new contract.

“We of course need to make sure that they are suitable. It’s not like jumping on a bus,” Aschbacher told Reuters. “We are looking into this technical compatibility but we have not asked for a commercial offer yet. We just want to make sure that it would be an option in order to make a decision on asking for a firm commercial offer.”

New friends: SpaceX has stepped up already to launch missions left stranded by the loss of access to Soyuz. 

  • OneWeb, the European B2B competitor to Starlink, opted to partner with SpaceX on launch rather than risk its constellation staying grounded. 
  • Last week, Northrop Grumman booked three Falcon 9 missions while it works with Firefly to replace the Russian-made engines on its Antares rocket.

Looking forward…ESA is not thinking that SpaceX will be a long-term filler solution. Instead, it’s hoping to fill that capacity with in-house rockets, including the forthcoming Ariane 6 and the proven Vega C, which made a successful debut flight last month.

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