European firm Arianespace has emerged as a key candidate to fill a temporary void alongside private US competitors Japan and India, but final decisions depend on the still-unsettled schedule for the delayed European Ariane 6 rocket.
“I would say there are two and a half options that we’re discussing. One is SpaceX, that’s clear. The other is probably Japan,” ESA Director General Joseph Aschbacher told Reuters.
“Japan is waiting for the first flight of its next-generation rocket. Another option could be India,” he added in an interview.
“I would say SpaceX is the most efficient of them and certainly one of the back-up launches we’re looking at.”
Mr Aschbacher said the talks were still in an exploratory phase and any relief would be temporary.
“Obviously we have to make sure they’re fit. It’s not like jumping on a bus,” he said. For example, the interface between the satellite and the launch vehicle must be suitable and the payload must not be compromised by unfamiliar launch vibrations.
“We are looking at this technical compatibility, but we have not yet asked for a commercial proposal. We just want to make sure that this will be an option to decide on a mandatory commercial proposal request,” said Aschbacher..
SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.
The political fallout from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has already been a boon for SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which has chosen other customers to cut ties with Moscow’s increasingly isolated space sector.
Satellite Internet company OneWeb, a competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite Internet business, has booked at least one Falcon 9 launch in March. It has also booked a launch in India.
On Monday, Northrop Grumman booked three Falcon 9 missions to ferry NASA cargo to the International Space Station as it designs a new version of its Antares rocket, whose Russian-made engines Moscow retired in response to the ban.
Until now, Europe relied on the Italian Vega for small payloads, the Russian Soyuz for medium ones, and the Ariane 5 for heavy missions. Its next-generation Vega C debuted last month, and the new Ariane 6 has been delayed until next year.
Aschbacher said a more precise schedule for Ariane 6 will be clear in October. Only then will ESA finalize an emergency plan that will be presented to ministers from the agency’s 22 countries in November.
“But yes, there is a high probability that a backup launch will be required,” he said. “Nature’s sequence is certainly a good handful of launches that will require our interim solutions.”
Mr Aschbacher said the Ukraine conflict had demonstrated that Europe’s decades-long strategy of cooperation with Russia in other areas, including gas supplies and space, no longer worked.
“It was a wake-up call, that we were too dependent on Russia. And this warning shot, we should hope that the decision-makers realize it, as I do, that we really need to strengthen our European capacity and independence.”
But he ruled out the possibility of keeping Russia’s promise to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS).
Newly appointed Russian space chief Yuri Borisov said in a televised meeting with President Vladimir Putin last month that Russia would withdraw from the ISS “after 2024”.
But Borisov later clarified that Russia’s plans had not changed, and Western officials said the Russian space agency had not announced any new withdrawal plans.
“The reality is that the space station is functionally operational, I would say almost nominally,” Aschbacher told Reuters. “We depend on each other whether we like it or not, but we have little choice.”