Updated: Oct 25, 2022
Washington - NASA officials have announced on October 17 that a European astrophysics spacecraft that was left stranded when Russia blocked access to Soyuz launch vehicles would instead fly on a SpaceX Falcon 9.
Mark Clampin, head of NASA's astrophysics division, shared his belief that the European Space Agency was leaning toward launching its Euclid mission on a Falcon 9 in mid to late 2023 at a meeting of the agency's Astrophysics Advisory Council.
Euclid, a space telescope that will operate 1.5 million kilometers from Earth around the Earth-sun L-2 Lagrange point, has NASA as a partner in its study of dark energy, dark matter, and other cosmological topics. The Soyuz rocket from French Guiana was to launch the 2,160 kilogram spacecraft in 2023.
However, those plans were altered following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, which brought up a series of sanctions from Western nations and countermeasures from Russia. Russia stopped Soyuz launches from French Guiana as part of that, leaving many ESA and other European missions searching for alternative means of space travel.
“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 remarks provide the clearest evidence to date that ESA will look outside of Europe for the launch of missions that were originally planned to fly on Soyuz. Agency executives had said they would take non-European launch options into consideration for at least some missions, but they had provided little details.
Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA, stated in an interview conducted in late August that the organization was still looking into alternative launchers for missions like Euclid.
Then, he stated, "We are going through the technology assessments" of other launchers with the intention of finalizing launch alternatives in a matter of weeks.
Another NASA representative who attended the committee meeting, Shahid Habib, stated that a feasibility analysis for launching Euclid on a Falcon 9 was still in progress. By the end of the month, he said, "This should be finished."
He said that the paucity of Ariane 5 rockets precluded the possibility of launching it on Ariane. There are numerous missions vying for the first launches of the brand-new Ariane 6, which has yet to make its debut. Currently, Falcon 9 is truly the greatest choice for them, he said.
There's a chance that Euclid is the only ESA or EU mission to switch to a non-European launch vehicle. According to Aschbacher, EarthCARE, an Earth scientific mission that first launched on a Soyuz, will most likely travel on Vega C.
Ariane 6 is anticipated to carry two pairs of Galileo satellites in place of the Soyuz rocket that they were originally scheduled to fly on. Sentinel-1C, a radar mapping mission, will also launch on Vega C.
He made it clear that any usage of non-European launch services like SpaceX would only be a short-term solution. "This is an intermediate solution, and Ariane 6 and Vega C will remain our basic launchers," he continued, "if we go to backup systems that are not European."
Ariane 6 testing is expected to be updated by ESA on October 19; this update may also provide a new launch date for the vehicle, whose initial launch has been pushed back to sometime in 2023.