The European Space Agency (ESA) aims to foster innovation and reduce costs in the European space sector through increased competition and stronger incentives for private companies. This objective was announced during the ESA Space Summit in Seville this week. Specifically, ESA plans to act as a customer for the development of a cargo spacecraft and new carrier rockets. In a recent development, European astronauts are expected to utilize the commercially operated space station, Starlab. An official memorandum of understanding was signed in Seville with the developers of the station, Voyager Space, and Airbus.
Starlab, currently under construction, is conceived as a commercial space station in low Earth orbit, intended as a smaller successor to the International Space Station (ISS), which is set to be retired by the end of this decade. The ESA intends to explore continuous access for European astronauts to the Starlab Space Station as well as participation in research projects in low Earth orbit. Additionally, options for future European providers of cargo and crew transport will be investigated.
The potential successor to the ISS is under consideration, with the ESA examining opportunities for collaboration and participation in projects in the near-Earth orbit. The agency is also exploring options for future European providers of cargo and crew transport services. The ESA General Director, Josef Aschbacher, expressed enthusiasm for close collaboration with the Starlab teams in Europe and the USA.
Starlab, designed to accommodate four astronauts, is scheduled to launch in 2028, with commercial operations commencing the following year. The retirement of the ISS, the largest human-made object in space, is prompting various countries and organizations to plan their own space stations. Russia, India, and China have all expressed intentions to develop their own space stations.
NASA, focusing on the Lunar Gateway project, a planned station in lunar orbit, collaborates with the ESA, JAXA, and CSA. Commercial providers, such as Airbus and Voyager Space, are essential for NASA’s post-ISS plans. Starlab, developed by these companies, aims to ensure seamless continuity for paying customers. Axiom Space, in collaboration with Blue Origin, is also working on plans for an ISS successor.
In the context of a changing landscape in space activities after the ISS, Europe aims to follow the United States’ example by promoting competition in the space sector. At the Seville Space Summit, the ESA announced its intention to develop a European cargo spacecraft as a customer, facilitating private companies to transport goods to and from the International Space Station by 2028. The spacecraft will be designed for potential future use in astronautic flights and journeys to other destinations in space.
For the initial phase, approximately 75 million euros in public funds have been earmarked, with the competition expected to involve contributions from the private sector. The ESA also plans to adopt a competition model for the development of new carrier rockets. EU Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton expressed support for commercializing space activities as a priority, recognizing the increasing competition in the sector, particularly from non-European actors. He emphasized the need to shift towards a new risk culture in space endeavors.