Space Europe deprived of its rockets at the worst time

Posted on December 21, 2022 at 4:57 PM

It’s the worst case scenario. While the year 2022 has already brought its share of calamities, space Europe has just experienced what appears to be a coup de grâce and the promise of an even tougher 2023.

During the night of Tuesday to Wednesday, the Vega C light launcher missed its first commercial flight, resulting in the loss of two Airbus observation satellites. This is the latest episode in a dismal series that has seen the Old Continent’s sovereignty over access to space erode to near zero – and this for several months. A heartbreak, while the satellite constellations are being launched and the war is raging in Ukraine, on European soil.

Soyuz leaves a big void

However, Arianespace reached 2022 in good spirits. With 305 satellites launched in 2021, the post-Covid recovery was well underway. Ariane 6 and Vega C are expected to appear within a year, while the Soyuz partnership was in full swing. That’s when the first blow was dealt, when Russia announced, on March 4, the suspension of flights of its launcher on behalf of the Europeans, in retaliation for the international sanctions against Moscow after the invasion of Ukraine.

Brutally deprived of its most used rocket in 2021 – 9 launches out of 15 -, and its only solution in the medium payload segment, Arianespace found itself unable to put several institutional missions of the European Space Agency into orbit – including the launch of two Galileo positioning satellites. It also lost one of its biggest customers, OneWeb, whose contract in 2015 was estimated at between $1 billion and $2 billion, which left for SpaceX with six launches still to be accomplished.

If it was a blow, the withdrawal of the Soyuz could have been offset by the entry into service of the Ariane 6, designed to be able to occupy the medium and heavy segments alone. Scheduled for this year – after being delayed for two years, in part by the Covid pandemic – the inaugural flight was finally postponed to the last quarter of 2023.

A new change all the more harmful as it will occur after the retirement of Ariane 5, the last two of which will be launched in the next few months, and which will then take time for the Ariane 6 program to accelerate and honor an order book that has already filled around thirty rockets. .

That left the Vega C. Its successful maiden flight in July gave a dubious Europe some comfort in space. A beefier version of Avio’s Italian Vega light launcher, the rocket is too small to fill the void left by the Soyuz on its own, but it still felt like a welcome crutch for Arianespace in such a context. Until this Wednesday. After the failure of its first commercial flight, it will likely be several months before we see it return to the launch pad. Enough to disrupt its flight schedule, when it already has ten firm orders.

What to do with European satellites?

The loss of your cargo is also a blow. The rocket launched this Wednesday was intended to put into orbit the last two satellites of the Pléiades Neo constellation, designed by Airbus Defense and Space, which invested several hundred million euros in it.

This would give France and Europe “a step forward” in civil-military observation, by offering an image service anywhere on the globe with a resolution of 30 centimeters.

More broadly, the unavailability of community launchers leaves many programs in crisis. ESA has already started looking for ways out: in October, it entrusted SpaceX with launching the Euclid missions in 2023 and Hera in 2024. If the measure, which appears to be an affront to Europe’s space autonomy, has been presented as “temporary”, it may have to be extended if the European rockets are slow to return to the launch pad.

The case of military cargo is also unresolved, starting with the French reconnaissance satellite CSO-3, which has been waiting since last year to be launched by Ariane 6 and will have to wait until 2024, at least. Can this type of mission be entrusted to a non-European operator?

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