It’s official: Europe turns to the Falcon 9 to launch its navigation satellites

Enlarge / A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying 60 Starlink satellites launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on January 29, 2020.

The European Union has reached an agreement with the United States that will allow for the launch of four Galileo navigation satellites on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

According to Politico, the security agreement permits staff working for the EU and European Space Agency to have access to the launch pad at all times and, should there be a mishap with the mission, the first opportunity to retrieve debris.

With the agreement, final preparations can begin for two launches of two satellites each, on the Falcon 9 rocket from Florida. These Galileo missions will occur later this year. The satellites, which each weigh about 700 kg, will be launched into an orbit about 22,000 km above the planet.

The heightened security measures are due to the proprietary technology incorporated into the satellites, which cost hundreds of millions of euros to build; they perform a similar function to US-manufactured Global Positioning System satellites. The Florida launches will be the first time Galileo satellites, which are used for civilian and military purposes, have been exported outside of European territory.

Due to the extra overhead related to the national security mission, the European Union agreed to pay 180 million euros for the two launches, or about $196 million. This represents about a 30 percent premium over the standard launch price of $67 million for a Falcon 9 launch.

A launcher crisis

Somewhat to the ESA’s embarrassment, the continent has had to purchase several launches from its direct competitor in launch, SpaceX, during the last two years. In 2023, Europe launched its Euclid space telescope on a Falcon 9 rocket, and later this year, an ESA Earth observation satellite and an ESA asteroid probe will launch on Falcon 9 missions.

The reasons are twofold. First, the ESA broke off work with the Russian space corporation Roscosmos after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. After this conflict began, Europe stopped flying its missions on the medium-lift Soyuz rocket. A modified version of this booster had been launching from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana.

The other reason is due to ongoing delays with the development of the Ariane 6 rocket. This booster was originally due to make its debut four years ago, but the new rocket has undergone several development and technical delays. Europe’s launcher crisis became acute last year when the continent retired its long-flying Ariane 5 rocket, leaving it without a ready replacement.

However, this lack of access to space should come to an end soon. The ESA has shipped stages of the first flight hardware for the Ariane 6 rocket to its French Guiana spaceport. While the ESA has not set a specific launch date, it is working toward a window that extends from June 15 through July 31.

Assuming this test flight of the Ariane 6 goes well, the vehicle has a lengthy manifest of missions, including future Galileo satellites, other European spacecraft, as well as Project Kuiper satellites for its primary commercial customer, Amazon.

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