ORLANDO, Fla. — Europe may shift the launch of a Copernicus Earth observation satellite to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to avoid further delays in getting it into orbit.
At a press briefing Jan. 11, Simonetta Cheli, director of Earth observation at the European Space Agency, said the agency and the European Commission will decide in the near future whether to switch the Sentinel-1C radar imaging satellite from Vega C to Falcon 9.
ESA, she said, is providing information to the Commission “in terms of options for launch” of the spacecraft. “The Commission is assessing all elements and in the coming days and weeks, we’ll take a final decision considering a backup option of Falcon 9.”
Sentinel-1C is part of Copernicus, the Earth observation program jointly run by ESA and the European Commission. The spacecraft will fill a gap in synthetic aperture radar (SAR) observations created by the failure two years ago of Sentinel-1B. Copernicus has been using data from Sentinel-1A, launched nearly a decade ago, and from other SAR spacecraft while waiting for Sentinel-1C to launch.
ESA announced in 2022 that Sentinel-1C would launch on Vega C in 2023, although there was discussion about moving up the launch to late 2022. However, Vega C remains grounded after a December 2022 launch failure.
At the briefing, Toni Tolker-Nielsen, ESA’s director of space transportation, said the return to flight for Vega C is currently scheduled for mid-November, but suggested that it could slip by a month. “It should be at least before the end of the year. We’re pretty sure of that,” he said.
Moving Sentinel-1C to Falcon 9 could enable an earlier launch, although ESA officials at the briefing did not estimate by how much. “There is the need to launch Sentinel-1C as soon as possible to respond to user requirements of the community,” Cheli said. That shift would also address concerns about placing a key mission on the return-to-flight launch of Vega C.
ESA and the European Commission already have plans for as many as four Falcon 9 launches this year. ESA’s EarthCARE Earth science mission is scheduled for launch in May on a Falcon 9, while the Hera asteroid mission is planned to launch in October. The European Commission announced in November it was finalizing a contract with SpaceX to launch two pairs of Galileo navigation satellites on Falcon 9 rockets, tentatively scheduled for April and July.
Europe turned to SpaceX for those launches because of a confluence of factors that deprived it, temporarily, of independent access to space. That includes the Vega C problems, retirement of the Ariane 5 and delays in development of the Ariane 6, as well as the loss of the Soyuz rocket after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago. That created what Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s director general, frequently called a “launcher crisis” for Europe.
At the press conference, he argued that Europe has turned the corner on that crisis. Ariane 6 remains scheduled to make its debut between the middle of June and the end of July, along with Vega C’s return to flight by the end of the year. He also cited decisions at the European Space Summit in November to provide funding to stabilize production of those rockets through the end of the decade as well as a competition to support development of new commercial launch vehicles.
“This year will look much better,” Aschbacher said at the briefing. “We will reestablish access to space.”