The head of the European Space Agency was speaking at the start of two days of ministerial talks in Seville, Spain, on efforts to shore up Europe’s faltering launcher programmes and galvanise human and robotic exploration activities.
“The launcher challenge…will stimulate new European commercial space transportation services,” Director General Josef Ashbacher told ministers from the agency’s 22 nations.
“It will lower the cost of public funding and stimulate a new market for European space entrepreneurs.”
The comments reflect weeks of advance negotiations balancing the interests of Europe’s leading space nations, including Germany, which wants to promote competition to encourage its flourishing mini-launcher startup sector.
Such projects would start with a new generation of mini-launchers but could influence the framework for future replacements of Europe’s heavyweight launchers Ariane 6 and Vega-C, with ESA acting as a customer rather than leader.
The two-day “Space Summit” comes as Europe faces a more immediate crisis over access to space after delays to the new Ariane 6 rocket, combined with a grounding of the smaller Vega-C and severed access to Russia’s Soyuz due to the war in Ukraine.
“The first priority is get Ariane 6 to its inaugural flight as soon as possible and to get Vega-C back to the launchpad,” Aschbacher told ministers. Vega-C was grounded following a launch failure late last year.
Longer term, ministers face tensions over launcher policy, including funding for French-led Ariane 6, which is due to stage its first launch in 2024, four years behind schedule.
Delegates said France has pressed for more support to relieve financial pressure on a future batch of Ariane 6 launches and Italy wants more autonomy on its Vega-C project.
France is home to Airbus-Safran co-venture ArianeGroup, which builds the Ariane 6, and its space agency also runs the European launch centre at Kourou in French Guiana.
Italy said earlier on Monday it had agreed the outlines of a deal with France and Germany, which could lead to Vega-C being operated independently by Italian manufacturer Avio in addition to the current arrangements carried out by Arianespace.
People familiar with the discussions said the plans, which have not been finalised, could involve a transitional period during which responsibilities would be shared with Arianespace.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, Aschbacher urged Europe not to be left behind in space as it had been in technology sectors.
Europe has carved out a leading role in climate and scientific observation but has rarely targeted a prime role in human exploration, opting instead for a junior role in projects led by US space agency NASA or until recently Russia.
Ministers were expected to discuss an ESA proposal to invite private funding for a possible spaceplane designed to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station.
The project could eventually be adapted to include human flight, Aschbacher said. So far, however, the idea relies on limited funds topped up by private contributions.
The proposal echoes the Hermes spaceplane, which never got off the drawing board. Europe’s answer to the US Space Shuttle was designed to carry three astronauts but was scrapped in 1992.