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EU Policy. Space cargo contracts offer ESA chance of relaunch, says astronaut

Italian ESA astronaut and project lead Samantha Cristoforetti
Italian ESA astronaut and project lead Samantha Cristoforetti Copyright Federico Gambarini/DPA
Copyright Federico Gambarini/DPA
By Paula Soler
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Faced with fierce competition in space from the US, China and India, Europe is stepping up its efforts to secure a place in the emerging space economy by boosting the development of its own space capabilities - but how, when and by what means?

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The development of orbit-to-Earth cargo vehicles by two European companies following a European Space Agency (ESA) tender will enable the laggard continent to regain some confidence in the space economy, an Italian astronaut leading the project has told Euronews.

Samantha Cristoforetti was speaking in the wake of ESA signing two contracts worth €25bn each with Germany's Exploration Company and Italy's Thales Alenia Space to develop cargo shuttle services to and from space stations in low Earth orbit (LEO).

The announcement came as European industry ministers met ESA counterparts in Brussels to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the space industry and how to improve the sector's competitiveness. The ESA comprises most EU countries as well as Canada, Norway, Switzerland and the UK.

Historically, Europe has relied on international partners such as the US and Russia to get its cargo and crew into space through a barter system, so the development of this cargo vehicle is in practice a kind of ticket for Europe to stay in the space business.

“If we want to maintain that kind of partnership, we need to have something that they're interested to exchange,” Italian ESA astronaut and project lead Samantha Cristoforetti told Euronews on Wednesday.

She said this was particularly the case since by 2030 the institutionally-owned International Space Station (ISS) will be decommissioned and replaced by private space stations.

“We have to secure Europe's place in the post-ISS LEO ecosystem [after 2030],” Cristoforetti said ahead of ESA ministerial-level discussions taking place in Brussels.

Europe has opted to offer a service to transport supplies from Earth to space and back, rather than directly develop its own human spaceflight programme - which would have been far more costly.

"The possibility of developing a crew vehicle was part of the discussion, [but] we're not there yet. There is no consensus in Europe on this," stressed the ESA project leader.

Last November, at a space summit in Seville, ESA member states agreed not to start a manned space programme from scratch.

Instead, ESA would launch a competition for up to three companies to develop a cargo vehicle capable of adapting to space destinations other than the ISS and evolving into a crew vehicle if member states so wished.

On Wednesday, ESA announced the outcome of the competition, which was won by two European companies that met all requirements, including the need to raise at least 20% of private funding to support their projects in the first phase of the mission.

Both are now expected to develop a vehicle capable of carrying up to four tonnes of supplies to the ISS and two tonnes back to Earth by 2028 (or in any case no later than 2030) – a capability not yet demonstrated in Europe.

ESA member states approved a total budget of €75bn, meaning that the remaining €25bn will be reallocated to other space exploration activities yet to be decided.

"This LEO cargo was nevertheless a success because it's anyway an inevitable first step,” Cristoforetti argued.

The Italian astronaut believes that this development service is a way of building confidence by showing that European industry can develop this type of technology in a timely and affordable manner.

ESA is also planning to launch a competition for industry to provide a launch service.

A request for information from industry is expected shortly, and a call for proposals in May 2025, with the aim of selecting eligible projects in the summer - funding will be proposed to the ESA Council at ministerial level in November 2025.

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“The idea in both cases is really to introduce competition into the ecosystem, and to give an opportunity to new companies to grow,” the Italian astronaut said.

Launchers were indeed the thorniest issue at the Seville space summit, as Europe now lacks rocket launchers - meaning it has lost its independent access to space.

Europe's Ariane 5 launcher made its final voyage in July 2023 after decades of service, but its successor Ariane 6 has faced repeated delays since 2020 and is not expected to launch until July 2024.

As a result of these delays and the cut-off from Russia's Soyuz rockets following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago, Europe's access to space has relied since last year on the services of SpaceX, a project of US billionaire Elon Musk.

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