The European Space Agency announced March 11 that it had awarded contracts to three launch providers to study the future of the European space transportation sector.
ESA awarded €500,000 ($597,000) contracts to ArianeGroup, Avio and Rocket Factory Augsburg as part of the agency’s New European Space Transportation Solutions (NESTS) initiative.
With the awarding of the three NESTS contracts, ESA expects to gain an insight into the future demand for space transportation systems in Europe between 2030 and 2050. This will include studying potential successors to Europe’s next-generation Ariane 6 and Vega C launch vehicles. It will also examine the technologies, infrastructure and organisational concepts that will support the development, construction and launch of these vehicles.
“ESA, through its New European Space Transportation Solutions initiative, lays the foundations that enable us to prepare the future beyond Ariane 6 and Vega-C,” said ESA director of space transportation Daniel Neuenschwander. “These system concept studies will include services that prioritise the future needs of Europe’s space programmes but also allow us to address global market needs.”
The three studies are slated to last four months with their findings used in the preparation of proposals for the ESA ministerial-level council meeting in 2022.
The next decade of European spaceflight
As ESA begins to explore the future of European spaceflight, the continent’s established launch providers are expected to be joined by a number of upstarts.
Rocket Factory Augsburg, one of the three companies selected for ESA NESTS contracts is currently developing a two-stage rocket designed to launch up to 1,350 kilograms into polar orbit. The launch provider is one of three German-based rocket makers developing commercial launch vehicles. HyImpulse and Isar Aerospace are each working on their own two-stage launch vehicles.
As German launch providers prepare for the maiden flights of their respective vehicle’s, Scottish startup Skyrora has already begun to launch small suborbital vehicles. The company is developing a range of five launch vehicles from its diminutive Skylark Nano to the three-stage Skyrora XL, which is designed to carry up to 315 kilograms into Sun Synchronous and polar orbits.
In addition to several launch startups, Europe is also investing in orbital launch facilities. There are currently planned spaceports in various stages of development in Scotland, Sweden, Portugal, Italy, Germany and Norway. Several launch providers including Abl Space and Virgin Galactic have already signed on to launch from the next-generation of European spaceports.
As European industry invests in space, civil funding has surged to match its enthusiasm. In 2019 European leaders gathered for ESA’s Space19+ ministerial-level council meeting in Seville, Spain to approve the largest budget in the agency’s history.. The €14.4 billion budget will fund a broad package of projects over a five-year period.
“Together we have put in place a structure that sees inspiration, competitiveness and responsibility underpin our actions for the coming years, with ESA and Europe going beyond our previous achievements with challenging new missions and targets for growth along with the wider industry,” said now-former ESA Director General Jan Wörner.