Exclusive: Europe eyes Musk’s SpaceX to replace Russian rockets

PARIS, Aug 12 (Reuters) – The European Space Agency (ESA) has started preliminary technical talks with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to temporarily use its launchers after the Ukraine conflict blocked Western access to Russia’s Soyuz rockets.

A private American competitor to Europe’s Arianespace has emerged as a leading contender to temporarily fill the gap with Japan and India, but final decisions depend on the still-unsettled schedule of Europe’s delayed Ariane 6 rocket.

“I would say there are two and a half options that we’re discussing. One is SpaceX, which is obvious. The other is potentially Japan,” ESA Director General Joseph Aschbacher told Reuters.

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“Japan is waiting for the launch of its next-generation rocket. Another option could be India,” he added in an interview.

“I would say SpaceX is the more operational of them and certainly one of the back-up launches we’re seeing.”

Aschbacher said discussions remain at an exploratory stage.

“We certainly need to make sure they are appropriate. It’s not like jumping on the bus,” he said. For example, the interface between the satellite and the launcher must be suitable and the payload must not be compromised by unfamiliar forms of launch vibration.

“We’re looking into this technical compatibility but we haven’t asked for a commercial offer yet. We just want to make sure that’s an option for the firm to decide whether to ask for a commercial offer,” Aschbacher said.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has already tied other customers to Moscow’s increasingly isolated space zone amid the Ukraine conflict, but a high-profile European mission could be seen as a significant win for the US rocket maker.

Aschbacher stressed that any back-up solution would be temporary, however, he is not worried about Ariane 6’s future.

Satellite internet firm OneWeb, a competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet initiative, booked at least one Falcon 9 launch in March. It has also booked an Indian broadcast.

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

‘Wake-up Call’

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

A more precise Ariane 6 schedule will become clearer by October after the current hot-firing test, Aschbacher said. ESA will then finalize a back-up plan to be presented to ministers from the agency’s 22 nations in November, he said, adding that the most recent Ariane 6 delay was not the result of any significant new setbacks.

“But yes, it is more likely that a back-up launch will be needed,” he said. “An order of magnitude is certainly a good handful of projections for which we will need interim measures.”

Aschbacher said the Ukraine conflict has shown that Europe’s decades-long strategy of cooperation with Russia in other areas, including gas supplies and space, is no longer working.

“It was a wake-up call, that we are very dependent on Russia. And this wake-up call, we hope that the decision-makers realize this, as I do, that we really have to strengthen our European capacity and independence. .”

However, he ruled out the possibility of Russia fulfilling its promise to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS).

Russia will withdraw from the ISS “after 2024,” Russia’s newly appointed space chief Yuri Borisov said in a televised meeting with President Vladimir Putin last month.

But Borissov later clarified that Russia’s plans had not changed, and Western officials said Russia’s space agency had not informed it of any new towing plans.

“The reality is that operationally, the space station is operational, I would say almost nominally,” Aschbacher told Reuters. “We depend on each other, like it or not, but we don’t have much of a choice.”

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Reporting by Mark Potter Editing by Tim Heffer and Joey Roulette

Our Standards: Principles of Thomson Reuters Trust.

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