EXCLUSIVE: Europe looks to SpaceX for Musk to plug launch gap left by Russian tensions

PARIS (Reuters) – The European Space Agency (ESA) has begun preliminary technical discussions with Elon Musk’s SpaceX that could lead to temporary use of launch pads after the conflict in Ukraine prevented Western access to Russia’s Soyuz missiles.

The US private rival to European firm Arianespace has emerged as a major contender to fill a temporary gap along with Japan and India, but final decisions depend on the as-yet-unresolved schedule of the delayed Ariane 6 missile in Europe.

“I would say there are two and a half options that we are discussing. One is SpaceX, and that’s clear. Another option might be Japan,” ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher told Reuters.

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“Japan is waiting for the inaugural flight of its next-generation missile. Another option may be India,” he added in an interview.

“I would say SpaceX is the most practical of those and definitely one of the backup launches we’re looking forward to.”

Asbacher said the talks are still at an exploratory stage.

“We of course need to make sure it fits,” he said. “It’s not like jumping on a bus.” For example, the interface between the satellite and the launcher must be adequate and the payload must not be compromised by unfamiliar types of launch vibrations.

“We are looking at this technical compatibility but we have not yet requested a commercial offer. We just want to make sure that it will be an option in order to decide on a firm commercial offer request,” Asbacher said.

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SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has already engulfed other customers who cut ties with Moscow’s increasingly isolated space sector amid the conflict in Ukraine, but a high-profile European mission could be seen as a big win for the US missile maker.

Schbacher stressed that any back-up solution would be temporary, but added that he was not concerned about the future of the Ariane 6.

Satellite internet company OneWeb, a competitor to SpaceX’s satellite internet project Starlink, has booked at least one Falcon 9 launch in March. She has also booked an Indian launch.

On Monday, Northrop Grumman booked three Falcon 9 missions to carry NASA’s cargo to the International Space Station while it designs a new version of the Antares rocket, whose Russian-made engines Moscow has withdrawn in response to the sanctions.

‘Wake up cry’

Europe has so far relied on the Italian Vega for small payloads, the Russian Soyuz for medium payloads, and Ariane 5 for heavy payloads. The next-generation Vega C debuted last month, and the release of the new Ariane 6, designed in two versions to replace both Ariane 5 and Soyuz, has been delayed until next year.

Ashbacher said that Ariane 6’s more accurate schedule will be clearer by October after the current hot launch test. He said the ESA will finalize a backup plan to present to ministers of the agency’s 22 countries in November, adding that the latest delay in Ariane 6 was not the result of any significant new setback.

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“But yes, the potential for backup launches is high,” he said. “An order of magnitude is definitely a good handful of launches that we need temporary solutions for.”

Schbacher said the conflict in Ukraine showed that Europe’s decade-long cooperation strategy with Russia in gas supplies and other areas, including space, was no longer working.

“This was a wake-up call, because we were so dependent on Russia. And this wake-up call, we have to hope that the decision makers understand that as much as I do, that we really have to strengthen our European capacity and our independence.”

However, he played down the likelihood of Russia implementing a pledge to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS).

Russia’s newly appointed space chief Yuri Borisov said in a televised meeting with President Vladimir Putin last month that Russia would withdraw from the International Space Station “after 2024”.

But Borisov later clarified that Russia’s plans had not changed, and Western officials said the Russian space agency had not reported any new withdrawal plans.

“The truth is that work on the space station is going operational, I would say almost symbolically,” Schbacher told Reuters. “We depend on each other, whether we like it or not, but we don’t have many options.”

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(Reporting by Tim Hever and Joey Roulette; Editing by Mark Potter

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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