Falcon 9 leading candidate to launch European science mission

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WASHINGTON — A European astrophysics spacecraft stranded when Russia cut off access to Soyuz launch vehicles may instead fly on a SpaceX Falcon 9, NASA officials said Oct. 17.

At a meeting of NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Council, Mark Clampin, director of the agency’s astrophysics division, said his understanding is that the European Space Agency was leaning towards launching its Euclid mission on a Falcon 9 in mid to late 2023.

NASA is a partner on Euclid, a space telescope that will operate around the Earth-sun L-2 Lagrange point 1.5 million kilometers from Earth to study dark energy, dark matter and other aspects of cosmology. The 2,160-kilogram spacecraft was to launch on a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana in 2023.

Those plans changed, though, after Russia invaded in Ukraine in February, leading to a series of sanctions from Western countries and responses from Russia. That included Russia halting Soyuz launches from French Guiana, leaving several ESA and other European missions looking for new rides to space.

“The current situation with Euclid really comes down to the current political situation,” Clampin said, citing the loss of access to Soyuz. “Right now, ESA is investigating SpaceX Falcon 9 options for late 2023.” That launch could take place in mid-2023, officials later said at the meeting.

The comments are the strongest indication to date that ESA will look outside of Europe to launch missions originally intended to fly on Soyuz. Agency leaders had previously stated they would consider non-European launch options for at least some missions, but had offered few specifics.

In an interview in late August, Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA, said the agency was still investigating alternative launches for missions like Euclid. “We are going through the technology assessments” of alternative launchers, he said then, with a goal at the time of finalizing launch options within weeks.

At the committee meeting, another NASA official, Shahid Habib, said a feasibility study for launching Euclid on Falcon 9 was still ongoing. “This should be completed by the end of this month,” he said.

Launching it on Ariane, he said, was not an option because of the lack of remaining Ariane 5 rockets. The new Ariane 6 has yet to make its first launch, and there are several missions competing for its initial launches. “At this time, the best option for them is really Falcon 9,” he said.

Euclid may be the only ESA or European Union mission to shift to a non-European launch vehicle. EarthCARE, an Earth science mission also originally manifested on a Soyuz, will likely go on Vega C, Aschbacher said in August. Sentinel-1C, a radar mapping mission, will also launch on Vega C, while two pairs of Galileo satellites previously set to launch on Soyuz are expected to go on Ariane 6 instead.

He emphasized them any use of non-European launch options like SpaceX would be a temporary measure. “If we go to backup solutions that are not European, this is an interim solution, and Ariane 6 and Vega C will remain our baseline launchers,” he said.

ESA is scheduled to give an update Oct. 19 on the status of Ariane 6 testing that may include a new schedule for that vehicle’s first launch, which has slipped to some time in 2023.