Exclusive: Europe eyes Musk’s SpaceX to fill launch void left by tensions with Russia

PARIS, Aug 12 (Reuters) – The European Space Agency (ESA) has started 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 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.

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“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 remain at an exploratory stage.

“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.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has already brushed off other customers severing ties with Moscow’s increasingly isolated space sector amid the Ukraine conflict, but a high profile European mission could be seen as a major win for the US manufacturer of rockets.

Aschbacher stressed, however, that any fallback would be temporary, adding that he was not worried about the future of Ariane 6.

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.

On Monday, Northrop Grumman booked three Falcon 9 missions 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, designed in two versions to replace both Ariane 5 and Soyuz, has been delayed until next year.

Aschbacher said a more precise Ariane 6 timeline would be clearer by October after the current hot-firing tests. ESA will then finalize a backup plan to be presented to ministers from the agency’s 22 countries in November, he said, adding that the most recent Ariane 6 delay was not the result of another significant setback.

“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 downplayed 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.”

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Reporting by Tim Hepher and Joey Roulette Editing by Mark Potter

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