Europe on course to 're-establish access to space' in 2024

European Space Agency cut ties with Russia after its invasion of Ukraine

The European interplanetary mission Juice blasts off in April 2023. ESA
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Europe will re-establish access to space this year, said the director general of its space programme, Josef Aschbacher.

The European Space Agency severed ties with Russia following its invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, resulting in the loss of access to Soyuz rockets, which launched more than two dozen missions from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana.

Europe’s workhorse Ariane 5 launcher for heavy payloads also retired last summer.

The ESA has also suffered problems with next-generation rockets, leaving the space programme with reduced ability to launch satellites.

But both Ariane 6, which was originally supposed to launch in 2020, and the smaller Vega-C, which was grounded last year after a failed launch, will finally be introduced this year.

Speaking at the ESA’s annual press briefing on Thursday, Dr Aschbacher said: “Last year at this press conference I was saying very loud and clear that Europe was in a launcher crisis.

“And a launcher crisis, is of course, not having our own access to space. Getting Ariane 6 on to the launch bed and Vega-C return to flight has been keeping us very busy last year.”

Important decisions were also made last year to guarantee access to space until at least the end of this decade using Ariane 6 and Vega-C, he said.

The ESA has also begun to prepare for the next heavy launcher after Ariane 6.

“I can say that this year will look much better, hoping of course that everything goes to plan. We will re-establish access to space,” Dr Aschbacher said.

“We are on a stable path towards the maiden launches.”

Ariane 6 is scheduled to launch between mid-June and the end of July. The ESA said it will have the flexibility to launch heavy and light payloads to a wide range of orbits for applications such as Earth observation, telecoms, meteorology, science and navigation.

Vega-C failed during the launch of its second mission in December 2022 after losing pressure shortly after its second stage ignited and failed to accelerate as required. Mission controllers instructed the launcher to self destruct and no damage was done on the ground, the ESA said. Investigators said a faulty part from Ukraine was to blame.

The launcher, an upgrade to the Vega vehicle introduced in 2012 and designed to bring added performance and cost savings, is scheduled to return to space on November 15.

Last year, Dr Aschbacher said the ESA wanted to “further explore co-operation opportunities” with the UAE’s space programme.

Dr Aschbacher also suggested the ESA could collaborate on a second Rashid lunar mission to fly a UAE lander to the Moon.

The ESA is an inter-governmental space agency featuring 22 member states, including non-EU countries including Norway and the UK.

Updated: March 05, 2024, 11:41 AM