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Europeans called to develop reusable spaceships, amid space access crisis

8 months ago 27

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched a call this week for European companies to develop a re-entry cargo spaceship at a time Europe is unable to send satellites into orbit due to delays with European launchers.

The ESA’s Director-General Josef Aschbacher announced at the ESA meeting in Seville on 6 and 7 November that the agency will launch a “competition between innovative European companies to deliver a space cargo return service to transport cargo to the International Space Station by 2028 and bring cargo back to Earth.”

The project will require “transport, docking and re-entry capability, something Europe does not possess today,” he added.

The move is designed to compete with the American SpaceX company, which has started making reusable rockets in recent years. Meanwhile, China and India are currently looking at their own options.

Re-entry cargo ships are also a move towards a more sustainable use of space, with less debris and assets stagnating unused in orbit and less pollution.

The research for a European way to produce a re-entry cargo ship comes on top of the EU’s look for autonomous access to space, where it does not have to rely on third countries to launch satellites.

Launcher crisis

“We decided to start [creating] a cargo vehicle that will go to the space station, will dock at the space station and then bring mass down to earth again and be and have reentry capability,” Aschbacher said on Tuesday (7 November).

ESA will be a customer of the selected winning bidder, the director-general said, adding that public funding – €75 million, according to AFP – for the initial phase of the development of the re-entry cargo has already been secured and will be complemented with private contributions.

But while the ESA powers ahead with a call for new technologies, the Europeans are still working on getting their new Ariane6 rocket to the market, which is late and has left Europe without a way to launch its satellites independently.

As the situation became critical, the European Union started working on an agreement with SpaceX to launch its new generation of navigation system Galileo satellites (often dubbed ‘European GPS’), as Euractiv reported earlier.

The discussions to conclude the deal are ongoing for launches in April and June, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, also in charge of Space, told reporters on Tuesday after the EU Space Council.

Aschbacher also announced that the Ariane6 programme would receive €340 million due to negotiations with the biggest contributors (France, Germany and Italy) to ensure the programme’s viability despite delays.

“It is critical to ensure autonomous access to space; Europe has momentarily lost its autonomous access to space,” Breton said.

“We think that we need to change how we work on launches,” he added.

It means Breton said, “more competitiveness to meet our programming needs, greater industrial responsibility with technology – including reusable technologies – and reducing geo-return, aggregation of institutional actors – European Union, ESA or member states -, a preference for Europe for all member states especially for military launches”.

Despite Breton’s ambitions for a fully-fledged European launcher strategy, the Commission’s communication on space and defence published last spring went no further.

Eye on the moon

Looking for long-term access to space, ESA plans ahead of future uses for the next generation of re-entry cargo ship.

The re-entry cargo ship will first be a service vehicle; it “could later evolve to a crew vehicle and serve other destinations beyond low Earth orbit, if the member states so decide,” Aschbacher said.

He hinted that the reusable cargo ship could transport people into space, back on Earth, and on the Moon.

The moon has remained a goal for major global players looking to assert their presence and abilities in space.

“By endorsing my proposal, Europe will not only be a stronger partner, it will also be able to trade astronaut seats (…) eventually to the Moon,” the Director-General said.

China plans to send a man to the moon in 2030, as does India in the next few years. Until now, only the United States has accomplished a manned mission to the moon.

The programme would be highly beneficial for the European space industry, Aschbacher also said.

“The [US] Apollo programme’s spill-over benefits on the US economy were felt over 60 years ago and are still visible. Likewise, if Europe, according to a recent independent analysis,  would invest €50 billion in space exploration between 2025 and 2040, it would generate €150 billion in European GDP through space activities and their effect on the broader economy,” he said.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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