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European spacecraft converge in the US to board SpaceX rockets

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Thanks in large part to the delays incurred by Arianespace’s next-generation Ariane 6 rocket, a small fleet of European satellites is converging in the United States to hitchhike into orbit with SpaceX at the same time.

SpaceX’s launch of European payloads is nothing new. The company has occasionally launched spacecraft built in Europe for European space agencies or companies, but the combination is extremely rare. However, for a number of reasons, what was once foreign is starting to become commonplace, and that fact is about to become even clearer for the remainder of 2022.

SpaceX launched a series of six or seven spacecraft launches built by or for Europe on October 15. Over the weekend, the company successfully launched the Hotbird 13F, a Falcon 9 rocket that is 70 meters (230 ft) high, 3.7 meters (12 ft) wide and can produce up to 770 tons (1.7M lbf) of thrust on takeoff. A geographic transfer orbit (GTO) communications satellite for the French satcom company Eutelsat.

Hotbird 13F is the first of three Eutelsat satellites that the company has secretly agreed to launch with SpaceX rockets. Hours after its twin launch, the Hotbird 13G arrived in Florida in a private Airbus Beluga XL transport jet (its first visit to the US since 2009) and will soon begin preparing for its own journey on a SpaceX rocket in November 2022. Eutelsat 10B also left France for launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket in November, possibly aboard an ocean-going Arianespace ship for Florida on October 12.

Normally, choosing a launch provider for communications satellites costing eight or nine figures is accompanied by a press release and plenty of celebration. The fact that the European Space Agency, Eutelsat, Airbus and Thales Alenia said almost nothing until the last moment says a lot about how all parties involved really feel about getting their three satellites on SpaceX rockets. Originally, all three were intended to be launched on Arianespace’s rockets: Eutelsat 10B on one of the last Ariane 5s and Hotbird 13F and 13G on one of the first Ariane 6s.

It’s not entirely clear why Ariane 5 failed to launch Eutelsat 10B, but it’s not surprising that partners ESA, Thales Alenia, Airbus and Eutelsat decided to carry the Hotbird 13F and 13G to Falcon 9. The Ariane 6 rocket was intended to launch both satellites. simultaneously, years behind schedule and first launch recently slipped From the end of 2022 to 2023. It is now possible – if unlikely – that the Ariane 6, originally scheduled for launch in mid-2020, will not be ready for release until the second half of next year (or even later).

Thanks to these delays, the new rocket will enter the scene with a very busy 2023 and 2024 manifesto filled with high-value corporate and commercial payloads from all over Europe. In other words, a pair of semi-commercial communications satellites like the Hotbird 13F/13G could have had to wait a year or more to launch on Ariane 6. adding an insult get injuredHotbird 13F and 13G are the first two satellites built under the joint European Space Agency and Airbus Eurostar Neo program, and will now fly aboard an American rocket built by a company almost solely responsible for ending the golden age of competitive European launches. Services.

Confident that Ariane 6’s debut timing will be lower than usual, a NASA official recently announced that ESA is investigating the possibility of launching the Euclid, a next-generation two-ton space telescope. On SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Euclid was originally scheduled to launch on one of Arianespace’s Russian-made Soyuz 2.1 rockets (or Ariane 6) in mid-2022. This agreement was signed in 2020, six years after Russian President Vladimir Putin reminded the world of his instability, recklessness and brutality by illegally and unofficially invading Ukraine. In February 2022, after months of apparent backlog, Russia doubled down on the Ukraine offensive with a full-scale invasion that was clearly genocidal. In the aftermath, a group of Europeans hijacked the OneWeb satellite, demanded a Soyuz rocket the company had already paid for, knelt down on a joint Euro-Russian Mars mission, and canceled (albeit mostly mutual) support for European Soyuz launches.

This effectively eliminated Russia as a serious option for European launches or cooperation, leaving many European missions and companies in limbo. Britain’s OneWeb, for example, had a special contract with Russia to launch the entire low Earth orbit (LEO) internet satellite constellation with up to 21 Soyuz rockets. After losing $230 million in the process, the company abruptly had to switch gears and is now on track to launch its first batch of satellites with an Indian SLV-3 rocket since early 2022. One of at least two SpaceX Falcon 9 missions could be launched as early as December 2022. If Ariane 6 doesn’t make its debut in the near future, many more European loads could find themselves in similar positions in 2023 and 2024.

Meanwhile, many other European-made payloads are preparing for Falcon 9 launches. While these payloads have been assigned to SpaceX rockets from the start, they still show just how big of a bite the US startup has taken from the European launch industry. Finally, the joint NASA-ESA-CSA Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) spacecraft flew from France to California on October 17. Falcon 9 will launch SWOT from the California coast in December 2022.

Soon, Japanese startup ispace’s first HAKUTO-R Moon Lander, largely assembled, tested and shipped by French ArianeGroup, will be transported from Germany to Florida for SpaceX launch in November 2022. Germany’s second and third SARah radar satellites could travel to the United States shortly for a Falcon 9 launch tentatively scheduled for the last days of 2022 or early 2023. Finally, SpaceX may complete the first OneWeb launch at the same time.

European spacecraft converge in the US to board SpaceX rockets