CEDAR PARK, Texas — The European Space Agency has signed an agreement with Airbus and Voyager Space to study potential use of the companies’ Starlab commercial space station as a successor to the International Space Station.

Airbus and Voyager said Nov. 9 they signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with ESA during the European Space Summit in Seville, Spain, earlier in the week. (Dylan Taylor, chairman and chief executive of Voyager Space, is the vice chairman and a shareholder of Multiverse Media Inc., the parent company of SpaceNews.)

The two companies and ESA will initially study how the planned Starlab space station can be used to provide continued access to space for Europe after the retirement of the ISS. That utilization could include ESA astronaut missions to Starlab and use of the station for ESA-supported research.

ESA could also provide cargo and crew transportation for Starlab, the companies added. The agency is starting a commercial cargo initiative it announced at the summit Nov. 6 that seeks to have a vehicle ready for missions by 2028. That cargo vehicle could later evolve into a crewed vehicle.

“ESA appreciates the transatlantic industry initiative for the commercial Starlab space station, and the potential that its strong European footprint holds for significant European industrial and institutional contributions to, and use of, said station,” ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said in a statement.

Both commercial space station developers and ISS partner nations have been determining how best to enable those partners to use commercial stations after the retirement of the ISS, currently scheduled for 2030. The current approach among ISS partners for bartering services is not expected to extend to commercial stations, requiring new contracts or other partnerships.

“This agreement with the European Space Agency is critical as we continue to foster international collaboration in the space domain and move towards succeeding the International Space Station with Starlab,” Matthew Kuta, president of Voygaer Space, said in the statement. “We look forward to working with Airbus and ESA to extend Europe’s footprint in space and ensure they remain a leader in the new generation of commercial space exploration.”

Voyager previously took a step towards enabling European access when it announced in August a joint venture with Airbus to develop Starlab. Having Airbus involved helps not only with the technical development of Starlab, Kuta said at the time, but also its business development. “We have great relationships with ESA, but clearly Airbus has much better relationships,” he said then.

“Our collaboration on this next-generation space station builds on a long and successful partnership between ESA and Airbus in developing and operating a wide range of crewed and uncrewed spacecraft,” Mike Schoellhorn, chief executive of Airbus Defence and Space, said in a statement.

Besides the joint venture with Airbus, Voyager Space announced in October a partnership with Northrop Grumman, which had been developing its own commercial space station. Northrop will offer a version of its Cygnus cargo spacecraft able to dock autonomously with Starlab, along with other potential contributions.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...