Will the war in Ukraine force Europeans to go through SpaceX?

The European Space Agency (ESA) has been preparing its Euclid mission for several years, which aims to shed light on dark matter and dark energy. The agency had planned a launch in March 2023 from French Guiana aboard a Soyuz rocket. The war in Ukraine put an end to this cooperation, forcing the Europeans to look into another launch alternative: Ariane 6. However, we still do not know when this rocket will be able to fly. What if the alternative was none other than SpaceX, one of Arianespace’s main competitors?

The Euclid Mission

We know that the Universe is expanding and that this expansion is accelerating. To explain this increasingly rapid flight of galaxies, cosmologists have imagined the presence of a repulsive force opposed to gravity: the famous dark energy (or dark energy). For the time being, it is inaccessible to us, just like the black matter. Regarding the latter, it would be a form of matter emitting, absorbing and reflecting no light capable of explaining the movements of stars and galaxies.

Understanding the nature of these two mysteries is of paramount importance if we wish to better understand the workings of the Universe. In an attempt to see things a little clearer, the European Space Agency (ESA) has developed a mission called Euclid.

Its main objective will be to study the evolution of galaxies over the last ten billion years by analyzing the distribution of dark matter and ordinary matter. Thanks to all this data, researchers will then be able to read the history of our Universe with more precision, to understand its expansion and, de facto, to estimate its true degree of acceleration.

A mission without a launcher

Until recently, this mission was scheduled to launch in 2023 aboard a Russian-made Soyuz rocket through European launch provider Arianespace. This flight was to operate from the European spaceport of Kourou, in French Guiana. However, this cooperation ended on February 26 at the initiative of Russia in response to the sanctions imposed by European states following the invasion of Ukraine. Result: several European missions, including Euclid, now meet without launchers.

The case of Euclid is particularly problematic. Indeed, its storage could cost more than one hundred million euros per year and put his entire team on standby. Also, for several weeks, mission leaders have been looking for an alternative.

Artist’s impression of ESA’s Euclid telescope. Credits: Wikipedia

The SpaceX Solution

Arianespace, the partner used by ESA for almost all of its launches, is currently developing its new workhorse: Ariane 6. Euclid could use the version 6.2 launcher (with hypergolic upper stage powered by the Aestus engine). However, that rocket still hasn’t flown, and at least four other satellites have already booked flights ahead of Euclid.

To avoid losing too much money, the mission would have to be launched quickly aboard an available rocket with sufficient lifting capacity. This is where SpaceX comes in. The rocket’s lifting capacity Falcon 9 is indeed very similar to that of Ariane 6.2. On paper, SpaceX’s workhorse would therefore be perfectly capable of sending the two-tonne satellite into its required L2 orbit. Additionally, a Falcon 9 launch costs less than a hundred million dollarswhich is equivalent to Euclid’s storage costs for one year.

One of the questions that remains unanswered is how the vibration spectrum of the Falcon 9 launch (which may affect Euclid’s instruments) differs from that of Ariane/Soyuz. SpaceX is currently conducting a feasibility study. This could be completed by the end of the summer. If the company meets the requirements, a launch date could be scheduled for next year.

The SpaceX option therefore seems appropriate. However, could the ESA really launch one of its greatest scientific missions aboard a rocket competing with that of Arianespace, its historical partner? For ESA member states that have invested heavily in European launch infrastructure, sending Euclid on a Falcon 9 may not be an easy route to take, but a necessary route nonetheless.

Those responsible will consult over the next few months. We will have the answer in November.

Leave a Comment