The ESA-EU Space Summit at Seville/Spain on November 6/7 focused on the need to evolve the future of the European Space Agency (ESA) and European spaceflight in general.
Europe’s space ambitions are moving into a “paradigm shift,” as noted by Josef Aschbacher, Director General of ESA, as Europe deals with a gap in capability between Ariane 5 and Ariane 6, with an additional focus on future vehicles with reusability in mind.
Supported by the ministers of the European Space Agency’s 22 member states, ESA’s council declared more competition and commercial input as the key points for two major projects to define the future participation of Europe in the global space economy.
Project number one is a competition for new launch vehicles to follow the current Ariane 6 and Vega-C programs, in all categories from micro to heavy launchers. The second drive targets a new cargo vehicle for transport to and from the International Space Station (ISS), ready to fly in 2028.
Aschbacher once again admitted to the current “European launcher crisis” as a consequence of mistakes made in the past and emphasized the importance of rectifying those now as soon as possible.
Neither Ariane 6, four years behind schedule, nor Vega-C, are currently ready to fly – the latter after technical problems during the last launch with a NET (No Earlier Than) next launch in April 2024.
For Ariane 6, Aschbacher said he would be better positioned to provide a NET launch date after a long-duration (470 seconds) core stage engine test firing, planned to take place at the end of November 2023.
Dr. Walther Pelzer, Executive Board Member of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and Director General of the German Space Agency revealed that funding for the launcher competition will be in the same region as the 361 million Euro a year from 2026 onwards for future Ariane 6 (340 million) and Vega-C (21 million) launches that ESA has agreed on.
It was noted this would secure the program for 42 launches future of each, instead of only 15 so far.
According to the DLR, the ‘European Launcher Challenge’ was initiated by Germany, “to open up the market to competition from commercial launchers and thus achieve greater cost-effectiveness and resilience. After all, we can only become independent and competitive in Europe if we contrast the approaches of the past with a new vision,” Pelzer stated.
“We have decided to completely change the way the next launch vehicle is defined,” Aschbacher added. The industry will make proposals and ESA will be the anchor customer. “Something like Ariane 6 – ore 5, 4, etc. – is not going to happen again.”
“Of course, it takes time until these new launchers come and fly and provide heavy-lift launch capability”, he admitted, “but we are building it up now, and today these decisions are made.” The joint implementation of the ‘European Launcher Challenge’ will be prepared for the next Council Meeting at the Ministerial Level in Germany in 2025.
There was support from EU Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton, who added “Commercializing space activities is a priority.”
The sector is becoming increasingly competitive, especially from non-European players. “We need to change our approach to a new risk culture.”
Moving to the future, European cargo transport vehicle is seen by Aschbacher as a “currently missing piece” in the further participation of Europe in space exploration.
In the past, Europe contributed to resupply missions to the ISS with the ATV from 2008 to 2015. Now, a new competition is targeted to inspire industry to provide a new vehicle in a very short time, “a huge challenge”, according to the Director General of ESA.
“We will buy a cargo return vehicle which should fly to the International Space Station by 2028”, Aschbacher set as the time frame. “It will bring some tons of payload up to the space station, dock at the space station, and come back to Earth with some tons of cargo in the vehicle.”
While officially the new cargo transporter was always called as a service vehicle to and from the ISS, which is currently planned to be retired in 2030, ESA is aiming to evolve further into the next decade.
German ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, who spent six months on the ISS as a Crew-3 member, mentioned that it could also be used to serve further space stations after the ISS.
Airbus, the leading European space company, in a joint venture with the U.S. Companies Voyager Space and Northrop Grumman is working on building Starlab, one of the competitors in NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations program.
Maurer also already hinted at what would be a big leap for ESA, crewed missions on European vehicles. “It could even evolve into a human-rated vehicle to ferry astronauts from and to space, which of course I find very exciting.”
Aschbacher was positive about this ambition, but wasn’t willing to not yet want to commit to at this stage, as this would be “a future decision for the Council to make.” But should such a decision once be made, the crew version could even go further than low Earth orbit – eventually possibly to the Moon.
A “tiger team” is now implemented within ESA to begin the competitive procurement process immediately.
For the first phase, a projected three companies will compete with each other for funding of 75 million euros from the agency’s 2022 budget. Funding for Phase 2 will be considered and decided at the next ministerial meeting in 2025.
ESA will not specify the vehicle’s design, only the services it requires, including docking and re-entry capability, something yet to be provided by European vehicles. As in the launcher program, the agency will serve as the anchor customer.
Similarities between the ESA program and NASA’s commercial cargo program are starting to align, following the success of its partnership with SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft which started as a cargo vehicle that berthed, but later was turned into a spacecraft that can be flown either with or without crew, and docks.
ESA appears to be aiming to merge into that partnership path as a future aspiration.