Europe seeks to emulate NASA’s revolutionary commercial shipping program

Zoom in / A presentation of the European cargo re-entry vehicle proposed by Thales Alenia Space.

Thales Alicia Space

The European Space Agency has awarded initial contracts to a German-based startup and one of the continent’s established aerospace companies to develop a spacecraft to transport cargo to and from space stations in low Earth orbit.

The European Space Agency announced two contracts worth €25 million ($27 million) on May 22. The exploration company, based in France and Germany, and Italy’s Thales Alenia Space beat out four other companies in the competition for ESA funding through the LEO cargo return service. program.

These contracts will last for two years until June 2026. In this first phase of the program, Exploration and Thales Alenia Space will refine their mature concepts and technologies and focus on their cargo vehicle requirements. ESA plans to award contracts for the second phase of the LEO cargo return service program in 2026, and is eyeing a round-trip test flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2028.

The exploration company, founded in 2021, says its Nyx cargo carrier could fly to the space station as soon as 2027. Thales Alenia Space’s test mission is targeted for the end of 2028. The exploration company plans to fly a reentry vehicle, the company said in a statement. On a subscale on the first flight of a European Ariane 6 rocket in July. Thales Alenia Space has not built a reentry vehicle, but has manufactured pressure shells for several modules on the International Space Station.

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ESA requirements stipulate that commercial European cargo vehicles must be able to deliver 4 metric tons of equipment to low Earth orbit and return 2 metric tons to Earth.

ESA originally wanted to select three companies to advance the European shipping programme. Only the winners “submitted a combination of business plan and financing plan appropriate for the purposes of this call,” said Samantha Cristoforetti, the ESA astronaut leading the procurement effort.

Cristoforetti told Ars that ESA has received “six valid proposals” from European industry. It declined to identify other competitors, but two of the bids are believed to have come from ArianeGroup and Rocket Factory Augsburg.

Partial commitment

Representatives of ESA’s 22 member states met in Seville, Spain, last November to decide on several priorities for the space agency. The meeting resulted in several important decisions. Member states agreed to adopt a more commercial model of purchasing launch services from European rocket startups in the future, although in the near term ESA will remain fully committed to the long-awaited Ariane 6 and Vega C rockets.

European governments have also signed on to the first phase of the LEO cargo repatriation service, but the initial €25 million contracts signed with the Exploration Company and Thales Alenia Space will only go so far. At its next high-level budget meeting late next year, ESA will ask its member states for the rest of the funding needed to implement the program through test flights to the International Space Station.

ESA operates in budget cycles that typically last three years. This helps ensure stable funding for the agency’s programs, but it can get in the way of the kind of rapid change that is emblematic of startup culture. However, Joseph Aschbacher, ESA’s director general, received approval from member states in November to use some of ESA’s funding to partner with industry on commercial cargo vehicles.

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“We want to be on the space station around the year 28,” Aschbacher said at a news conference on May 23. “We now have to evaluate in detail the technical proposals and capabilities, but this is very fast, in fact faster than some of our overseas competitors have been able to build such a car.”

Aschbacher seems serious about making ESA smarter. However, the agency’s budget and direction are determined by European government ministers through the prism of narrow domestic politics.

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