Elon Musk, the owner of X, formerly Twitter, and the entrepreneur leading global space transportation systems, has just suffered a serious setback to his ambitious plans to take astronauts to the Moon and Mars. His 120-metre-tall Starship mega rocket – the equivalent of a 45-storey building – self-destructed on 18 November in the middle of its second test flight at 148 kilometres altitude.
But such a major setback has no impact on the fact that the US billionaire and its Falcon 9 launcher are the main beneficiaries of the severe crisis that has left the European Space Agency (ESA) without one of its three rockets.
Since 10 October, both ESA and the European Union have been without any rockets to put their satellites into orbit. Unwilling to contract space vehicles from China or India, and unable to do so with launchers from Russia, the two European organisations have had no choice but to turn to the wealthy businessman, his company SpaceX and his Falcon 9 rocket.
Europe’s lack of sovereign capacity to access space will last until mid to late 2024. It has such an impact that European ministers meeting in Seville on 6 and 7 November described it as a “crisis”. Also the director general of the ESA, the Austrian Josef Ashbacher, and the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, the Frenchman Thierry Breton, under whose sphere of control Brussels’ space policy falls.
The immediate consequence: seven European satellites have been forced to change hands in order to be placed in orbit. Four EU and three ESA spacecraft have had to put their contracts with the European Ariane 6, Vega and Vega-C rockets marketed by the French company Arianespace on hold and bow to Elon Musk’s reliable and reusable Falcon 9.
The most reliable and envied in the world
With a success rate of 99.3%, the Falcon 9 is the envy of space agencies in China, Russia, India and even NASA and, of course, ESA and the EU. At 70 metres tall, with two propulsion stages and a maximum payload capacity of 22.8 tonnes, it has already flown more than 280 times since its maiden flight in June 2010 and its propulsion stage has been recovered more than 230 times.
With an official cost per launch in the order of $67 million, the added benefit offered by Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 is that it can lift off from three different sites. SpaceX has launch facilities and concessions in the military zone and in the civilian area of Cape Canaveral, Florida, on the Atlantic coast. Its third pad is at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the Pacific Ocean.
The United States’ main means of transport for placing military, commercial, scientific and even spy satellites in orbit, sending resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station and also carrying astronauts and bringing them back, Falcon 9 managed to take off 60 times in 2022 without any mishaps. As of 19 November, it has already exceeded 80 successful launches in 2023 and the goal is to reach 100 by the end of the year, which it is well on its way to achieving.
One of the European missions that has been transferred is HERA, part of ESA’s space security programme. The space probe is due to rendezvous with the Didymos and Dimorphos asteroids in December 2026, to verify the extent to which the impact of NASA’s DART probe – which occurred on 26 September 2022 – has managed to divert them from their trajectory. HERA is due to launch in October 2024, so ESA cannot risk waiting for Ariane 6, which is not known when it will be operational.
Another programme that is already nearly a year and a half behind schedule and cannot be delayed any longer is EarthCARE, a joint project with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). It aims to improve the scientific community’s understanding of the role clouds and aerosols play in diagnosing the health of the Earth.
Falcon 9, underpinning European strategic autonomy
ESA signed a contract with Arianespace on 28 October 2019 for a Russian Soyuz rocket fired from the European base in French Guiana to place EarthCARE at an altitude of 393 kilometres. From there it is to measure solar radiation hitting the planet, the infrared radiation it traps and the radiation it reflects back into space.
However, as the war in Ukraine has led to the suspension of Soyuz flights from Guyana, ESA decided that its 2.3-tonne science satellite should travel on the European Vega-C. But its failures, shortcomings and limitations have led to the suspension of Soyuz flights. But its failures, shortcomings and limitations have led the agency to also opt for Falcon 9, which is due to carry EarthCARE to the asteroid rendezvous in May 2024.
On the Brussels side, the biggest “embarrassment” that EU commissioner Breton says he feels is having to contract Falcon 9 – the direct rival to Ariane 6 – to position two Galileo satellites in April 2024, followed by two more in July. All four are due to renew as many of the 23 currently serving in Europe’s Galileo constellation of navigation, positioning and timing satellites, the main global competitor to the US GPS system.
And another contract is on the horizon. ESA has not yet disclosed whether or not it has already contracted Falcon 9 for the Sentinel-1C radar satellite in its Copernicus Earth observation constellation. The agency signed the agreement in April 2022 for the Vega-C to place it at 693 kilometres altitude in the first half of this year, which has not happened. The launch has been rescheduled for 2024 and is expected to be carried out with Falcon 9.
In addition to the European satellites that have been repositioned on board Falcon 9, there is the European Euclid telescope, built to unlock the secrets of the dark universe. The two-tonne Euclid telescope was planned to fly from French Guiana on the Russian Soyuz vector. But sanctions over the Ukraine war between the two sides prevented it, and Euclid left Cape Canaveral on 1 July aboard another Falcon 9, which has become the “champion of European strategic autonomy”, smiles the US.