WASHINGTON — The European Union is in the final stages of completing a deal with SpaceX to launch four Galileo navigation satellites in 2024.
In press briefings during the European Space Summit in Seville, Spain, Nov. 7, Thierry Breton, commissioner for the internal market for the European Commission, said he was “finalizing the discussions” for a pair of Falcon 9 launches, each carrying two Galileo satellites, tentatively scheduled for April and July of 2024.
The last obstacle to completing a launch contract, he said, was negotiating a security agreement to protect sensitive technologies on the Galileo satellites, which previously had been launched from the European spaceport in French Guiana, when those satellites are being prepared for launch from the United States.
The launch contract itself was completed in July, Breton noted, and that the European Commission had approved a European Space Agency proposal to use the Falcon 9 for launching those satellites. He said the European Commission would spend 180 million euros ($192 million) on the Falcon 9 launches.
At an Oct. 19 meeting of the ESA Council, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said that the final decision for using SpaceX to launch the Galileo satellites was in the hands of the Commission. “We have prepared on the ESA side the contractual arrangements with an external launch company, but whether or not the launch will be decided to take place with SpaceX is not in our hands,” he said. “It is a decision of the European Commission.”
There had been discussions for more than a year about using a non-European rocket, like the Falcon 9, for launching those satellites because of delays in the Ariane 6, the retirement of the Ariane 5 and the withdrawal of the Soyuz after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Those satellites would augment the existing operational Galileo constellation and serve as on-orbit replacements if other satellites fail.
“We have no major anomalies ongoing in orbit. We have no trends that indicate it is absolutely urgent to launch,” said Francisco-Javier Benedicto Ruiz, ESA’s director of navigation, at last month’s ESA Council meeting. Nevertheless, “we want to carry on deploying.”
ESA had already contracted with SpaceX for three Falcon 9 launches, one of the Euclid astronomy spacecraft that took place in July and launches in 2024 of the Hera asteroid mission and EarthCARE Earth science satellite. ESA said it went with the Falcon 9 after the loss of the Soyuz, delays in the Ariane 6 and concerns about the Vega C, which remains out of service since a launch failure in December 2022.
The reliance on SpaceX for launching European spacecraft because of problems with Ariane 6 and Vega C has become a source of embarrassment and frustration for European officials. “As an institutional client, I’m not happy with what’s happened,” Breton said at one briefing, referring to Ariane 6 delays. “We had a calendar which was promised but not kept to.”
Breton said he welcomed agreements announced the day before, during the ESA portion of the European Space Summit, to shore up the European launch industry. That featured guaranteed financial support for a future batch of Ariane 6 and Vega C rockets, with up to 340 million euros a year for Ariane 6 and 21 million euros a year for Vega C. That agreement also includes a commitment of at least four Ariane 6 and three Vega C launches a year for European government customers.
He said there should be a “preference for Europe” when European institutions, including national governments, purchase launches, subtly criticizing those governments that have gone outside the continent, such as to SpaceX, for satellite launches. “This is a sine qua non condition of autonomous access to space. That is how we will ensure commercial viability of our launchers.”
In a Nov. 7 statement, Avio, the prime contractor for the Vega rocket, revealed other terms of the launch agreement. Avio will take over responsibilities for launch operations and sales of the Vega from Arianespace, a process slated to be completed by mid-2024. Avio said it expects to reach an agreement with Arianespace on how to handle the 17 currently contracted Vega launches.
The agreement also calls for allocation of existing infrastructure at the Kourou, French Guiana, spaceport for Vega rockets. That would include using the former Ariane 5 pad for launches of the Vega E, an upgraded version of the Vega C with a new liquid-propellant upper stage in development.