SpaceX to Launch Scientific Missions for European Space Agency

Earlier this year, the European Space Agency (ESA) selected SpaceX as one of a few possible backup launch providers after sanctions against Russia forced it to scuttle agreements with Roscosmos to launch its hardware. Now SpaceX will launch two scientific missions for the ESA.

“In response to EU sanctions against our enterprises, Roscosmos is suspending cooperation with European partners in organizing space launches,” said Russia’s space agency.

The Euclid Space Telescope

The Euclid Space Telescope was originally slated to launch this year from French Guinea. However, when Roscosmos withdrew its employees from the launch site, the ESA was forced to delay the launch and consider alternatives.

Euclid will now launch on a SpaceX rocket in 2023 and orbit near the James Webb Space Telescope, which was launched in October 2021.

Euclid will provide data for scientists interested in studying dark matter and dark energy. Researchers call it “dark” matter and energy because they can’t be detected directly with existing instruments. However, scientists are refining techniques for detecting their presence and measuring their effect on the universe.

Euclid could provide clues about the early universe and even help researchers refine their models of conditions in the universe right after the Big Bang. The James Webb Space Telescope’s sensitive infrared instrument already detected three early galaxies that existed 11.3 billion years ago. The research team behind the discovery of these galaxies now believe that they are part of a newly discovered cluster of early galaxies. Euclid could provide more data on how large structures like these galaxies formed.

ESA’s Euclid telescope could also provide clues about dark energy’s role in the accelerating expansion of the universe. It might also provide clues about the relationship between dark matter and neutrinos and the nature of any other dark matter particles that are – so far – mostly hypothetical.

The Hera Mission

SpaceX will launch the Hera mission in 2024. Hera will provide a closer look at the results of NASA’s DART mission, which sent a small spacecraft to collide with an asteroid named Dimorphos. The collision tested a proposed method for redirecting potentially dangerous asteroids that could collide with Earth.

Dimorphos orbits a bigger asteroid named Didymos, making it ideal for testing an impact’s effect on its orbital path. Observations from Earth-based telescopes indicate that DART altered its orbit – maybe a bit more than intended due to a jet of air escaping Didymos after the impact.

Hera will also study the properties of Didymos and Dimorphos. It will also release six CubeSats that can take multi-point readings as part of a “mother-daughter” configuration. These CubeSats will be capable of communicating with one another to provide redundancy.

Redundancy is a good thing.

The European Space Agency has its own rocket, the Ariane 5, which can launch heavier payloads. It is still working on Ariane 6, which has faced multiple delays.

However, it prefers to have a fair amount of redundancy in the wake of sanctions against Russia, which put cooperation between the ESA and Roscosmos on hold. It also cited Japanese and Indian launch providers when announcing its selection of backup launch providers for medium-sized payloads.

ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher admitted that SpaceX is among the best private companies in the world for space launch services. He warned that the rest of the world was falling behind and SpaceX could end up “making the rules” in space if everybody else doesn’t keep up.

Roscosmos gave the ESA few enough options for launching important scientific missions like the Euclid Space Telescope and Hera, however. International relations can be a real headache sometimes. SpaceX is perfectly happy to pick up the slack and get stuff done even when Russia is aiming barbs at everybody else.