British space companies invited to join race to build Europe’s new rocket

Josef Aschbacher
ESA director general Josef Aschbacher with German government aerospace coordinator Anna Christmann - JOSE MANUEL VIDAL/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK

The European Space Agency has vowed to develop a SpaceX-style rocket to help it catch up with the United States, with the help of British companies.

The ESA is suffering a major launch crisis after it retired its Ariane 5 heavy-load rocket in July only to experience multiple problems with its replacements, which has forced the agency to hitch a ride with SpaceX.

At the UK Space Conference in Belfast, Josef Aschbacher, the ESA director general, said the crisis had forced the agency into a “paradigm shift”’ in which they will launch a competition for new rockets capable of rivalling SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Starship.

“Launchers are a risky business, they are literally rocket science and sometimes fail, but we have to regain guaranteed access to space,” he said. “We have decided, collectively, on a paradigm shift that means for the next launcher, we will run a competition and the best company will win.

“This is a completely new way of doing it in Europe but it was done already in the US by Nasa, out of which, as we all know, SpaceX with Falcon 9 emerged. We’re doing more or less the same.

“These will be small launches, at the beginning, with a few hundred kilos of payload. They will go into a tonne, maybe two tonnes and eventually five to 10 tonnes for the heavy launcher category.”

Starship, Elon Musk's SpaceX launcher
The European Space Agency wants to stop hitching a lift on private rockets like Elon Musk's Starship - JOE SKIPPER/REUTERS

Nasa is increasingly outsourcing its launch capability to  Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the company is scheduled to take astronauts back to the Moon as part of Nasa’s Artemis III mission, which could launch as early as 2025.

However, SpaceX has suffered a number of mishaps in recent months, with its giant Starship spacecraft exploding twice during test-flights, leading to fears the Artemis III mission may need to be pushed back.

Mr Aschbacher said companies across Europe would be invited to develop the new rocket system for the ESA which is likely to include several companies, such as Skyrora, who are already developing launchers in Britain.

“I see the future of launches in Europe being very much more diverse,” he added. “The UK already has a few launchers that are ready to fly or getting ready to fly.

Huge challenge

“Yes, it’s a huge challenge, some people may say it’s impossible to catch up. It will take time but this is exactly the way Falcon 9 developed, and eventually Starship, and I think we can learn a lot. I’m pretty hopeful that we can catch up in the launcher sector.”

The ESA said it was vital to regain consistent access to space but as well as delays with the Ariane 6 rocket, Europe’s Vega C rocket has been grounded since last December, and European astronauts can no longer fly on the Russian Soyuz after relations broke down with Roscosmos over the Ukraine War.

It has left the ESA relying entirely on SpaceX, although Mr Ashbacher said there was now “light at the end of the tunnel” for Ariane 6. Final tests of the rocket’s Vulcain engines are due to take place this week and, if successful, a date for its maiden test flight will be announced soon after.

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