ESA Picks Companies to Develop New Cargo Spacecraft for Post-ISS Era

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The European Space Agency has selected two companies on Wednesday to progress the designs of a cargo spacecraft, aiming to establish the continent’s first independent access to space.

The chosen companies, Thales Alenia Space, a major aerospace prime, and French startup The Exploration Company, will each receive €25 million ($27 million) to develop vehicles capable of transporting cargo to and from low Earth orbit stations. This preliminary phase is set to continue until 2026, with further competitive contract opportunities anticipated. The goal is to have at least one capsule conducting a demonstration flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2028 and establish a cargo transportation service by the end of the decade.

Currently, Europe relies on international partners to ferry cargo and crew to space “via a bartering system,” as explained by the space agency when it announced the LEO Cargo Return Service contracts last year. With the imminent deorbit of the International Space Station and the emergence of privately-owned space stations, Europe might face the prospect of needing to pay cash for space access instead of bartering.

The LEO Cargo Return Service contract aims to reinvest this cash into enhancing European industrial capabilities. This cargo service could potentially pave the way for crewed transportation capabilities, similar to how SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has both a crewed and a cargo-only version.

“It prepares us for the post-ISS era, strengthening European industry’s competitiveness in low Earth orbit operations, and serves as a test case for ESA’s transformation and evolving working methods,” stated Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration.

First announced last year, the LEO Cargo Return Service contract mirrors NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program initiated in 2006. That program resulted in lucrative multi-billion-dollar service contracts for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation (now part of Northrop Grumman).

However, NASA had to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the development of both SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon and Northrop’s Cygnus capsules. The agency will need to undertake substantial lobbying to secure the financing required to support these projects through the decade.

Hélène Huby, CEO of The Exploration Company, stated that their capsule, named Nyx, is designed to service the International Space Station, upcoming private space stations, and NASA’s orbital lunar platform Gateway. The French startup has secured approximately $65 million from venture capitalists for its vehicle design, with the maiden flight scheduled for 2026, as confirmed by Huby in a recent interview.

“This contract is just the start,” said Huby.

Aria Alamalhodaei
Aria Alamalhodaei
Aria Alamalhodaei covers the space and defense industries. Previously, she covered the public utilities and the power grid for California Energy Markets. You can also find her work at MIT’s Undark Magazine, The Verge, and Discover Magazine. She received an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Aria is based in Austin, Texas.

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