June 7, 2023

Lakeview Gazette

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The ‘perfect storm’ that plunged Europe into a rocket crisis

The Russians started the space race in 1957 with the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik. In the second half of the 20th century, growth was gradual, with 50 to 100 satellites placed in orbit.It rose every year until the early 2010s, multiplying by 100.

All countries wanted to have their own satellites, while advances in electronics allowed small devices and microsatellites to appear and become fashionable, and more recently, constellations such as SpaceX’s Starlink or OneWeb, making it cheaper to send these things. Space, because a single rocket can carry dozens or even hundreds of satellites. Thus, in 2022, 2,163 space artifacts were launched, 1,810 in 2021 and 1,274 in 2020 (up from 120 in 2010).

2022 was also a record year for rocket launches 180 successful departures around the world, 44 more than the previous year. In the lead, China (62 launches) and the American company SpaceX (with 61, an average of one every six days).

There is a fact. “This has triggered a real crisis of launches to carry out scientific missions in orbit, such as satellites of the European Space Agency (ESA) and private companies or other organizations.

The Ukrainian war caused a rupture in relations with the Russians Europe can no longer rely on its Soyuz rockets Until the beginning of the conflict, they were launched from the European Space Station and Baikonur Cosmodrome in French Guiana. A collateral effect of the war forced a rearrangement of the calendar and affected the launch of European satellites such as the Galileo and OneWeb constellations. But the war was not the only setback the startup industry faced.

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On December 21, the crash of the second Vega-C rocket destroyed the French Pleiades Neo 5 and 6 Earth observation satellites, forcing the postponement of planned missions with this rocket, which was jointly developed by the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and ESA. , until March 3, an independent investigation clarified the reasons for the failure – the collapse of one of the components of its Zefiro 40 engine. “Europe faces a serious launcher crisis. Regaining confidence in Vega-C is a collective challenge,” ESA Director Joseph Aschbacher agreed during the presentation of the research results.

Ariane 5 is on the launch pad in French Guiana ESA

The Vega-C incident – the most powerful version of Vega – was the third catastrophic failure of the rocket in three years, a fresh blow to the European space industry. Apart from Pléiades Neo 5 and 6, the Spanish SEOSAT-Ingenio, the French TARANIS and the United Arab Emirates Falcon Eye 1 satellites were lost. Additionally, the Vega-C has a Ukrainian engine whose supply has been disrupted by the war.

As pointed out by Lucía Linares, responsible for strategy and enterprise flights in the direction of space transport at ESA, “Vega is scheduled to fly this summer, and Vega C will put Sentinel 1C into orbit by the end of 2023”, One of the satellites of the European Earth observation project Copernicus.

On April 14, ESA launches a mission to Jupiter, Juno, the jewel of the European family, and Ariane 5 retires on June 16, sending the German satellite Heinrich Hertz (H2SAT) and the French SYRACUSE into orbit. But Ariane 6, which should already be underway — it’s almost four years late — doesn’t yet have a date for its premiere. “We hope to be in a position to communicate it by the end of the summer of 2023,” says Lucia Linares, “ESA’s priority is to successfully complete each key phase in the final extension, so as to be quick and safe. First flight of Ariane 6”.

Why was Ariane 5 retired when Ariane 6 was not available? According to industry experts, the usual delay in missions has been compounded by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in a shortage of materials and components that will further delay Ariane 6’s development. In another era, that delay would have been granted. With the Russian Soyuz, an option is no longer available due to war. But beyond those problems, In Europe the pitch strategy is considered not very successful. Now we rely on SpaceX launches to launch European missions.

The James Webb Space Telescope was launched with Ariane 5 ESA

So, ESA will begin its Euclid missions (next July) with the Falcon 9 rockets to study matter and dark energy, and Hera (in 2024) to explore the Didymos-Dimorphos asteroids after the impact of the DART spacecraft last September.

“We are worried about the schedule because we have a lot of work that we want to start next year,” acknowledges Simonetta Cheli, director of ESA’s Earth observation programs, during an interview at the ESA center ESRIN in Frascati (Italy), which she directs.

Cheli considers the impact of the war in Ukraine on ESA’s Earth observation science programs used to manage climate change, the evolution of our planet and disasters such as floods, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. It will be limited: “Fortunately, in Earth observation missions, there is not much technical dependence on the Russians to build satellites. Once the war started, we quickly assessed the dependence and many components were not dependent. Russia or Ukraine, we depend mainly on the side of the launchers; There were some Earth observation missions that were going to be launched with Soyuz rockets, and now we don’t have that.”Agrees.

“Many are considering using space infrastructure, and demand for launchers is growing faster than supply.”, says Ezequiel Sánchez, CEO of PLD Space, the company that plans to test the Miura 1 rocket in a few days, the first launcher entirely developed in Spain. The manager recalled that according to data from the specialized consultancy Euroconsult, the category of satellites under 500 kilograms rose from the 13 tons planned to be launched in a year in Europe to 16 tons.

Because in lifetime missiles, capable of launching spacecraft and large satellites into space, A proliferation of microlaunchers has become fashionable as satellites shrink in size. A field that is on the rise, as evidenced by hundreds of projects in development around the world. Among them, the success of the American rocket laboratory operating from New Zealand stands out.

Assembly of the Ariane 6 rocket ESA

In Europe there are many other projects underway such as Spanish B2 Space, Pangea Aerospace and the aforementioned PLD. Arpex in the United Kingdom has its own launch pad in Scotland, while RFA or ISAR has emerged in Germany and France later joined the trend with MaiaSpace.

How many continue amid this boom remains to be seen Small satellitesIt was declared bankrupt and put up for sale in April, three months after its LauncherOne rocket failed to launch the first satellite mission from British soil.

The question will be whether the expected market for all these small missiles is realistic and competitive. Ride sharing, The Uber of SatellitesThey can be very cheap. In the first launch of SpaceX’s SmallSat Rideshare program, a Falcon 9 in January 2021, 143 private and government satellites were launched into orbit, some as high as 500 km. It’s a low-cost strategy — just as many passengers share a car during a trip, so many owners share a rocket to launch their satellites — that could make the launches cheaper, though experts worry they’ll be too many and too small. Making them difficult to track, a growing problem, with the resulting risk of collisions and the proliferation of space debris.