Tue. Jun 18th, 2024

ESA selects Thales Alenia Space and The Exploration Company for commercial cargo program

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun6,2024

WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency has selected one of the continent’s largest space companies and one of its best-funded startups for study contracts that could lead to commercial cargo and crew vehicles.

ESA announced May 22 that it awarded contracts worth about 25 million euros ($27 million) each to Thales Alenia Space and The Exploration Company. The two companies will advance their concepts for vehicles designed to transport cargo to and from the International Space Station and commercial space stations.

“Today ESA has further proven its leadership in space for Europe and European citizens. The signature of the low Earth orbit cargo return service contracts shows how ESA has modernized to meet the demands of the next era of the space economy,” Josef Aschabcher, director general of ESA, said in a statement.

ESA announced plans for the cargo vehicle program at the European Space Summit in Seville, Spain, last November. The program, modeled on NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) effort from nearly two decades ago, will provide support for commercially developed vehicles that could offer cargo transportation services and could later be evolved into crewed spacecraft.

The contracts to Thales Alenia Space and The Exploration Company cover initial design work on their vehicles. ESA will seek funding for later phases at its next ministerial meeting in late 2025, with the goal of having at least one vehicle ready to enter service by 2028.

Thales Alenia Space, one of Europe’s largest space companies, is offering a capsule that is says will be compatible with the ISS and commercial space stations as well as the lunar Gateway. Thales facilities in Italy and France will be involved in the project along with Altec, a joint venture of Thales Alenia Space Italia and the Italian Space Agency ASI, for the ground segment.

“Leveraging on its expertise in space exploration infrastructure and vehicles, the company, fully in line with the European Space Agency’s vision, wishes to invest in the development of technological solutions to give Europe a sustainable access to low Earth orbit,” said Massimo Comparini, deputy CEO and senior executive vice president of Thales Alenia Space, in a statement.

An illustration of The Exploration Company’s Nyx capsule for flying cargo into space, resupplying space stations, and ultimately transporting humans. Credit: The Exploration Company

The Exploration Company is a startup working on spacecraft designed to transport cargo to and from Earth orbit and in cislunar space. Its first demonstration mission is slated to fly on the inaugural Ariane 6 launch now scheduled for the first half of June. The company raised $44 million in a Series A round in early 2023, one of the largest early-stage rounds for a European space startup.

“We want to fly to the space station in ’27, so we’ve already started work on the final spacecraft,” Hélène Huby, chief executive of The Exploration Company, said in an interview during the 39th Space Symposium last month. That vehicle, she said, would be ready for a preliminary design review this summer.

While bidding on ESA’s program, Huby said she was working to win business from American companies working on commercial space stations. The company announced earlier this month that it had opened a U.S. office led by Mark Kirasich, a former NASA official whose roles at the agency included being Orion program manager.

“If everything goes well,” she said then, “we will have an American client and a European client.”

ESA did not immediately disclose how many companies submitted proposals, or why the agency selected two when it previously stated it could select as many as three. ESA officials previously said they had seen strong interest in the program based on participation in procurement meetings.

Among the companies that had expressed an interest in the competition was ArianeGroup, which has proposed a reusable vehicle called SUSIE, and Rocket Factory Augsburg, which announced earlier this year a cargo vehicle named Argo it proposed in cooperation with Space Cargo Unlimited and ATMOS Space Cargo.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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One thought on “ESA selects Thales Alenia Space and The Exploration Company for commercial cargo program”
  1. As a space enthusiast, I am thrilled to see ESA partnering with such reputable companies like Thales Alenia Space and The Exploration Company for advancing commercial cargo and crew vehicles. This marks a significant step forward in the space industry’s evolution towards more diverse and sustainable space transportation systems.

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