SpaceX Becomes Contender for European Space Agency Contracts

SpaceX became one of a few international contenders for European Space Agency (ESA) launch contracts. Ongoing diplomatic tensions due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to suspension of Roscomos’ agreements to provide launch services for European space missions.

The upcoming Mars rover ExoMars was one of the impacted scientific research missions. It had originally been slated to launch in September 2022 but will be postponed due to cancellation of its launch on a Russian rocket.

ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher listed Japan as another possible launch provider for upcoming missions. Mitsubishi Industries currently operates Japan’s H-IIA and H-IIB rockets and launches satellites from the Tanegashima Space Center. Aschbacher especially cited a next-generation rocket that Japan is working on.

Other possibilities include tapping India to launch hardware. Europe has its own native rocket manufacturer, Arianespace.

Aschbacher cited SpaceX as one of the most capable out of all the options. “SpaceX … is the more operational of those and certainly one of the back-up launches we are looking at.”

He cautioned that talks are still in the exploratory phase as they discuss the technical details of launching hardware on other rockets. Important factors include making certain that the hardware is compatible with the launch vehicle and the rockets’ vibrations will not damage satellites.

If the ESA taps SpaceX, it will serve as a temporary backup launch provider. Arianespace’s upcoming Ariane 6 rocket still shows progress.

SpaceX is certainly no stranger to working with space agencies like NASA. It currently launches crews and cargos to the International Space Station as a NASA contractor. It also has contracts to launch hardware like the Europa Clipper and components for the Lunar Gateway. It is developing a Starship-derived lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis Program, which NASA plans to launch with the Artemis III program.

The ESA is also pursuing closer relations with NASA in the wake of tensions with Russia. Along with the United States, Russia, Canada, and Japan, the ESA is currently a partner in the International Space Station. The ESA previously formed partnerships with NASA on a variety of endeavors, including the Sentinel-6 satellite and the Lunar Gateway.

Tensions with Russia also nixed deals between private organizations like OneWeb and Russia to launch hardware. OneWeb decided to launch some Internet-providing satellites on a SpaceX rocket after a deal to launch them on a Russian rocket fell through. Despite past spats between OneWeb and SpaceX, which owns the competing Starlink satellite constellation, Elon Musk promised to treat OneWeb like any other customer.