Fri. Jun 14th, 2024

Europe seeks to launch into clearing skies

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell May31,2024

One of the challenges of seeing a launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California is actually seeing the launch. A marine layer of low clouds often rolls in from the Pacific, causing rockets to disappear seconds after liftoff. That was the case May 28, when a Falcon 9 launched EarthCARE, an Earth science spacecraft developed by the European Space Agency.

“We saw the takeoff and, of course, you hear the sounds. Then you continue to watch on the screen,” said Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA. “But it doesn’t matter whether you see it or not. What is important is that the satellite was delivered safely.”

Aschbacher was in California, rather than French Guiana, for the EarthCARE launch because of what he has frequently called the “launcher crisis,” which forced ESA and the European Commission to turn to SpaceX to launch science missions like EarthCARE and Galileo navigation satellites. Development delays, launch failures and geopolitics combined to deprive Europe of its own means of accessing space.

However, skies are starting to clear for Europe. The inaugural flight of Ariane 6 is now scheduled for the first two weeks of July. The same day as the EarthCARE launch, Avio, prime contractor of the Vega C rocket, successfully tested a redesigned solid rocket motor, a step towards returning that vehicle to flight by the end of the year.

Aschbacher attended the launch days after a series of events in Brussels that included a Space Council meeting involving ESA and European Union member states. ESA also announced the first signatories of its Zero Debris Charter to promote space sustainability and selected two companies, Thales Alenia Space and The Exploration Company, for contracts to study commercial cargo vehicles that could be precursors to European crewed spacecraft.

Aschbacher spoke with SpaceNews a couple hours after the EarthCARE launch, discussing both the launch and other key development at ESA. A condensed version of that interview follows.

EarthCARE is the second mission ESA has launched on Falcon 9, after Euclid last year. How has the relationship with SpaceX been?

Aschbacher: It worked very well. We had a good experience with Euclid last year and now with EarthCARE. It’s really professional. Our teams and the SpaceX teams are working very well on all the various issues.

You must be relieved, though, that the Ariane 6 is nearing its first launch.

Yes, it feels good because I hear lots of questions: why are you launching with Falcon and not with Ariane? At the Berlin Air Show [June 5–9] I will be announcing a target date for the first attempt of the inaugural flight, which will be within the first two weeks of July. This is really coming close and I can say we are well on track.

What are the big milestones leading up to that launch?

We have gone through a very thorough qualification review, which has concluded. As in any review, a number of actions are identified that need to be closed, and this is ongoing right now. There is nothing that is a showstopper. Then there are the logistics in Kourou at the launch base and everything that leads up to the launch campaign. This is all proceeding pretty nominally. It’s still a lot of work, but nothing that worries me at this point in time that would make it impossible to launch within this two-week window.

How important was the Vega C static-fire test that just took place?

This was very important. We can see we are on track towards the return the flight by the end of the year. This test today was the most important milestone: we have another firing test in October, but the one today confirms that the redesign of the nozzle with the new carbon-carbon inserts is good. The thrust curve that has been measured is nominal and follows the expected, theoretical line, meaning that the motor is functioning well.

ESA announced May 22 it selected Thales Alenia Space and The Exploration Company for study contracts for its commercial cargo program. ESAofficials previously said they would award up to three contracts. Why pick only two?

The evaluation of the industrial proposals was very thorough, which we do with all the procurements of space hardware. This led to two companies being above the threshold that is required to issue a contract, so these are the two companies that signed last week. We had two other ones that were below this threshold and we had some iterations with them. But, even the clarification of some of the questions that we had been asking did not result in a strong enough proposal that we would feel confident to sign a third contract. It’s important that we have competition, but this also shows that we are very solid and rigorous in selecting companies.

ESA also announced the same day the first group of 12 countries to sign the Zero Debris Charter. What are the next steps in this effort?

The next round will be at the Berlin Air Show, which will be opened to companies and organizations. All together we have about 100 expressions of interest. I don’t want to disclose any ahead of that event, but I can tell you we have some very interesting companies that are lining up for this signing. We would really like to use this Zero Debris Charter as showing we are a champion of sustainability not only on planet Earth, where we work a lot on climate- issues, but also in orbit.

Do you have any concerns that the Zero Debris Charter might clash with the proposed EU space law, which reportedly will have its own provisions regarding space sustainability?

You really have to ask the European Commission about the space law. This is not something that we are involved in. I do not know the text of the law, so I cannot comment on what will be included. Of course, we are very interested in reading the text and analyzing it. Member states have already asked us at ESA, once the text is published, to analyze it and see what this means for the companies in their countries. Certainly, there will be an impact of the space law on how we develop programs. The issues like standardization [of national space laws] will be critical.

When you became ESA director general, you made improving relations with the European Commission one of your priorities. How much progress have you made, and how has that affected efforts like the IRIS² constellation?

In my Agenda 2025, I put cooperation between ESA and the European Union as a top priority. I worked in the European Commission as a staff member for a couple of years, so I know it very well, and I’ve been working with the Commission building up Copernicus over decades. For me, there’s no choice of that than to work extremely well together between the Commission and ESA. This is exactly what we are doing.

We have flagship programs like Copernicus and Galileo that are really only possible because ESA and the European Union are working together. Without one or the other, they would not exist, certainly not in its current quality, so there is no choice. There’s a huge necessity to work well together, so I’m very committed to do that.

IRIS² is the next one in line, but there are still some questions. The lead is with the Commission to sign this first contract. We at ESA are providing technical support, advice to the Commission in the evaluation of the proposals and then the implementation. We have about 600 million euros on the side of ESA, in terms of budget from our member states, for implementing it, focusing on development of technologies. The European Commission has also committed in an agreement to give more than 300 million euros to ESA out of their budget to make sure that this cooperation and implementation is working well.

Overall, ESA is implementing about 80% of the EU’s space budget for Copernicus and Galileo today, and I hope that, as we continue, we are the implementing agency of EU space programs. I will do everything that I can to continue this for decades to come.

This article first appeared in the June 2024 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.

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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