The European Space Agency is currently in a bit of a bind when it comes to launching its cargo to space, as Europe and Russia aren’t exactly seeing eye-to-eye these days. But with Soyuz rockets no longer available, the space agency is contemplating a partnership with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
As reported in Reuters, ESA is in preliminary discussions with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to procure the company’s services, a relationship the space agency needs now that it’s lost access to Russian Soyuz rockets. ESA is currently weighing its options between SpaceX and rockets supplied by either Japan or India. SpaceX, as ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher told Reuters, “is the more operational of those and certainly one of the back-up launches we are looking at.”
“We are looking into this technical compatibility but we have not asked for a commercial offer yet,” Aschbacher said. “We of course need to make sure that they are suitable. It’s not like jumping on a bus.” The talks between the space agency and SpaceX are still at an early stage, and relying on the company’s launchers would only be a temporary solution, he added.
The unwarranted invasion of Ukraine has taken a toll on Russia’s longstanding partnership with the U.S. and Europe on matters pertaining to space. ESA released a statement in February condemning the war, declaring that it was “assessing the consequences on each of our ongoing programs conducted in cooperation with the Russian state space agency Roscosmos.” In July, the space agency fully terminated its cooperation with the Russian space agency on an upcoming mission to Mars.
In turn, Russia has retaliated against the European-imposed sanctions, halting cooperation with Europe on Soyuz rocket launches from French Guiana and withdrawing its 87 employees from the launch site. This placed a strain on pending ESA rocket launches, as the space agency has been relying on Soyuz rockets for medium lift launches. ESA had planned to launch an Earth science mission dubbed EarthCARE on a Soyuz in September 2023, as well as the Euclid infrared space telescope. “This was a wake up call, that we have been too dependent on Russia,” ESA’s Aschbacher told Reuters.
ESA isn’t alone in having to forge new partnerships in the wake of Russian rocket withdrawals. In March, Russia halted its rocket engine supply to the U.S. in retaliation to the sanctions. As a result, Northrop Grumman recently announced that it was partnering with Firefly Aerospace to build an all-domestic rocket, which would eliminate the need for Russian engines. Until the new rocket is ready, however, the company will charter SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets to deliver its Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS for cargo missions.
Falcon 9 rockets have already completed 35 missions this year, but SpaceX, it would appear, will need to make these rockets even more accessible as alaunches are added to the schedule.