European Space Agency grits teeth, preps contracts for SpaceX Galileo launch
Secret tech will have to be shipped to the US for launch thanks to delays
The European Space Agency (ESA) is looking to SpaceX for its next set of Galileo satellites.
Previous satellites in the constellation were lofted on either Soyuz launchers or the Ariane 5. The former is no longer an option due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and the latter was retired in favor of the Ariane 6, which is beset by delays and yet to make its maiden flight.
This puts ESA in somewhat of a tricky situation. The absence of a domestic launch capability is placing significant pressure on the agency, resulting in the decision to tentatively book a pair of Falcon 9 launches for the highly sensitive satellites.
Galileo is Europe's alternative to systems such as the US Global Positioning System and includes a secure signal for military use – one which the UK is infamously excluded from using following the country's decision to exit the European Union.
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Four satellites are planned to be launched provisionally in April and July 2024, and the contract is worth €180 million ($192 million). However, the European Commission must decide whether the sensitive technology can be transported to the US for launch aboard a US rocket. Not doing so, however, means it runs the risk of further delaying the deployment of spares to the constellation.
ESA is no stranger to SpaceX when it comes to launches. For example, the Euclid telescope was launched on a Falcon 9 in July 2023, and the agency is considering assigning more missions to the vehicle thanks to Arianespace's struggles to get either the Vega-C or Ariane 6 flying. The aged Copernicus satellites need to be replaced, and the next Sentinel-6 launch in 2025 is scheduled to go up on a Falcon 9. Then there are the Hera and EarthCARE missions.
It is a bit embarrassing for the Europeans, who would very much prefer their payloads to be launched on European rockets. However, a combination of unavailability and pressing national and scientific needs means that paying Musk's rocketeers for a ride is the least bad option on offer. ®