Europe’s independent access to space will be at risk without radical reform to the development of satellite launch services, the head of the European Space Agency has warned.
Speaking as the UK aims to become the first country to launch commercial satellites from western Europe, ESA director-general Josef Aschbacher said a market-led approach was needed to ensure the region continued to have competitive sovereign launch capability. This would mean giving the private sector greater power to decide where and how to build Europe’s launch systems.
“Europe has to reacquire this competitiveness on the launcher market which today we do not have,” he said in an interview.
Aschbacher’s comments come just three weeks after the failure of Europe’s newest rocket — the midsized Vega-C, which is manufactured by Italy’s Avio — on its second flight. The rocket’s second stage, a solid motor called the Zefiro-40, malfunctioned minutes after lift-off.
The failed mission resulted in the destruction of two satellites meant to complete the Pléiades Neo Earth-imaging constellation, owned and operated by Airbus. Vega-C will be grounded while an investigation into the failure is conducted, which could take several months.
The rocket, which made its inaugural flight in July, was key to Europe’s ambition to retain independent access to space. ESA had to book missions with Elon Musk’s SpaceX after it discontinued use of Soyuz spacecraft in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year and amid continued delays to the bigger Ariane 6, already three years behind schedule.
“We are facing a crisis in the launcher sector,” Aschbacher said. “This is bad enough, but wasting a crisis is even worse. Now is the moment to really look at the way we want to build up the launcher system in the future.”
Europe had failed to develop “fully commercial” launch services under the traditional model, which constrained industry’s ability to allocate development and production. “If industry takes responsibility then [they] can organise themselves as they wish and where they think it is most opportune,” Aschbacher said. Such an approach would have to be negotiated and agreed by ESA member states, which include the UK, Switzerland and Canada, and industry.
Aschbacher wants his agency to adopt a Nasa-style reform, where it buys defined services instead of managing development of systems that are then marketed by Arianespace, the commercial launch company jointly owned by Airbus and Safran. Such market-led reforms led to the development of SpaceX.
“We have to have the commercial sector . . . through a competitive process, providing launcher solutions where ESA is the customer,” he said. Like Nasa, the agency could still provide technological support. But it would act as the “anchor customer” to private sector companies, as Nasa did for both crew and cargo services to the International Space Station.
ESA intended to take this approach for microsatellite launch services, the fastest growing segment of the rocket market. Aschbacher said ESA would soon launch a competition for microsatellite launchers, offering to provide an anchor contract to the winner “so they can rely on us as a customer”.
Aschbacher’s comments come as the UK prepares to become the first nation in western Europe to launch small satellites from its own soil.
Assuming there are no last-minute hitches, nine spacecraft are due to be lofted into low-earth orbit late on Monday by Virgin Orbit’s converted 747 aircraft, Cosmic Girl, from Newquay Airport in Cornwall. These include satellites from companies such as Space Forge and Rhea, which is testing novel navigation and positioning technology developed in the UK. Other payloads include a satellite jointly developed by the UK and US military, and Oman’s first orbital mission.
Ian Annett, deputy chief executive of the UK space agency, said Britain aimed to “demonstrate that we will be Europe’s principal launch operator” for small satellites.
As Britain remains an ESA member even after Brexit, Aschbacher said UK bidders would be eligible for the micro-launcher competition.