Private companies will be asked to develop the ships that could help European astronauts to reach the Moon, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced.
ESA director general Josef Aschbacher told a meeting of EU space ministers this week that “a new economy is developing in low Earth orbit that will transform space exploration”.
“Private companies are revolutionising the landscape from launchers to exploration,” he added.
The ambition, eventually, will be European astronauts on a European capsule on a European rocket, the ESA chief said.
Speaking at the start of the meeting in Seville, Spain he said: “The launcher challenge … will stimulate new European commercial space transportation services.
“It will lower the cost of public funding and stimulate a new market for European space entrepreneurs.”
Mr Aschbacher, Europe's top space official, said there was “light at the end of tunnel” in efforts to bring the delayed Ariane 6 to the launch pad and restore Europe's independent access to space.
Europe's new heavyweight launch vehicle has been delayed by technical glitches, leaving the continent relying on Elon Musk's SpaceX for some launches until some time in 2024.
“We are in a launcher crisis … this is something that is highly critical for Europe,” Mr Aschbacher said.
“I think it is fair to say we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel. We are hopeful that we are on a good path for the first flight,” he added.
Mr Aschbacher was speaking as governments consider the next phase of funding for the new launcher.
The ESA's 22 countries have agreed funds for an inaugural test flight and 14 operational missions. Now, they are seeking an accord on the next phase of “stabilised” operations, covering flights 16 to 42.
There has been progress in narrowing differences between the three largest launch partners – France, Germany and Italy – in recent days, but that any funding round would depend on agreement from smaller countries, sources told the AFP news agency.
The previous generation of rocket for heavy payloads, Ariane 5, was retired in July. The smaller Vega C has been grounded after a failed launch.
Europe's other possible path to space, the Russian Soyuz programme, was interrupted by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Those developments have left Europe scrambling to close the gap in launch capability as space increasingly becomes an arena for economic and strategic competition.
A task force comprising the heads of ArianeGroup – the Airbus/Safran joint venture responsible for building Ariane 6 – operator Arianespace, French space agency CNES – which runs the launch pad – and the ESA meets every 10-14 days.