ESA to fetch stuff from space before ISS takes the plunge

Thales Alenia Space and The Exploration Company tapped for retrieval ops

The European Space Agency has signed contracts with two European companies in a bid to get cargo back from the International Space Station (ISS) – hopefully before what is left of it is deorbited into the ocean.

ESA launched the competition in November 2023 and, six months later, selected a pair of winning proposals from The Exploration Company based in Germany and Italy's Thales Alenia Space. Each was handed €25 million to assist in developing the cargo service.

Timing is tight. In 1998, ESA awarded Aérospatiale a contract to develop its last cargo freighter, the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), but it took ten years before the first of five vehicles was launched. The ATV was, however, expendable and burnt up during re-entry. The new vehicle will allow cargo to be returned to Earth.

Thales Alenia Space is one of the key players when it comes to European endeavors in space. The company has more than four decades of heritage to draw upon and has contributed to the development of the ISS, the Lunar Gateway, and Orion's service module.

The Italian biz said it plans a two-phase approach. The first phase will run from June 2024 to June 2026, and the second phase will culminate in pressurized cargo being delivered to the ISS and safely returned to Earth by the end of 2028.

The Exploration Company is a German-French organization established in 2021. It has been developing the Nyx spacecraft, which is capable of delivering 3,000 kg of cargo from space stations to Earth or 2,000 kg from the Lunar Gateway.

ESA is striving for more independence rather than relying on international partners to transport cargo to and from space platforms. At present, only Russia and the US can return cargo from the ISS to Earth, with only SpaceX able to do so in any meaningful quantity.

The program resembles NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contracts, which resulted in the successful SpaceX Dragon missions. We'll draw a veil over Rocketplane Kistler's unfortunate fate when the cash ran out.

"The LEO Cargo Return Service project exemplifies ESA's commitment to ensuring Europe's prominent role in space exploration. It prepares us for the post-ISS era, strengthening European industry's competitiveness in low Earth orbit operations, as well as being a test case for the ESA transformation and working differently," said ESA Director of Human and Robotic Exploration Daniel Neuenschwander. ®

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