WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency and European Commission have selected five launch companies to participate in a new program to provide flight opportunities for new technologies, a sign of a greater role the European Union seeks to play in launch.

In a ceremony during the European Space Conference in Brussels Jan. 23, ESA and European Commission officials announced the launch companies that will participate in the European Flight Ticket Initiative. The effort, announced last fall, is intended to stimulate demand for European launch services by allowing them to compete for missions in the EU’s In-Orbit Demonstration and Validation technology program.

“The objective is to create a win-win situation for European operators looking for demonstration or qualification of technologies or subsystems in orbit, and stimulating the European small launcher sector through public funding of launch services,” said Toni Tolker-Nielsen, ESA’s acting director of space transportation, at the event.

Each of the companies will receive a “frame” contract as part of the initiative, allowing them to compete for task orders for launching specific missions. Officials did not disclose the anticipated value of those contracts, or how many launch companies competed to participate in the program.

Four of the companies selected for the Flight Ticket Initiative are startups working on small launch vehicles: Isar Aerospace, Orbex, PLD Space and Rocket Factory Augsburg. None of them have yet conducted an orbital launch but expect to do so within the next two years.

“This represents for Orbex an important milestone,” said Miguel Belló Mora, the company’s new chief executive, arguing that the selection offered confidence to its shareholders and its employees.

The fifth company was Arianespace, which will offer rideshare launches on its Vega C and Ariane 6 rockets. “We see the importance of smaller satellites, the impact and the power that these new innovations can bring,” said Steven Rutgers, chief commercial officer of Arianespace.

It was also, executives said, a first step towards a new focus on competition in European launch services. “I know how difficult it is to change an organization from inside,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, former director general of ESA who now chairs the board of advisors for Rocket Factory Augsburg, congratulating ESA and the European Commission for the initiative.

The program is also a sign of the growing role that the European Commission expects to play in launch, a point that Thierry Breton, commissioner for the internal market, emphasized in remarks at the conference the same day.

“It’s time for a paradigm shift so that we define and think European launcher policy within an EU framework. Of course, the European Commission is ready to lead and take its responsibilities in the transformation of the European launcher policy,” Breton said.

That policy would focus on three areas. One will be to aggregate European institutional demand, not just from ESA and the EU but also from national governments, “with a clear European preference,” he said. Some national governments have in recent years gone outside of Europe for launching spacecraft, such as SpaceX’s launch in December of two radar imaging satellites for the German military.

A second area will be supporting “game-changing innovation” in launch services like the European launcher challenge announced at the Space Summit in Spain in November. The third area will support investment in ground infrastructure, including test facilities.

“My ultimate objective and ambitions are clear: we aim to include in the next EU space program a fully-fledged access to space component, covering all aspects of dedicated European launcher policy from R&D to deployment and readiness,” Breton said. He did not offer specific timelines for those policies or funding. Current EU space efforts operate under a funding agreement called a multiannual financial framework that runs through 2027.

Launch vehicle development in Europe has traditionally been the domain of ESA and national governments, but in a separate talk at the conference shortly after Breton, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher acknowledged a larger role for the EU in the future.

“The next generation of launchers will be developed in a very different way by European industry with ESA as an anchor customer,” he said, an approach that will more closely follow the services approach used in the United States. That work, he said, will be done “in close cooperation with the member states, together with the European Union and other European institutional users as potential customers.”

Ekaterini Kavvada, director for secure and connected space in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space, said that partnership was off to a good start with the Flight Ticket Initiative. “With Toni, we are really hand-in-hand and we demonstrated, when the European Commission and the European Space Agency join forces, we can make miracles,” she said.

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...