Who will answer call to provide European ISS resupply services?
A look at the companies that may compete to answers ESA's call to develop space station resupply services.
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Who will answer ESA’s call to build space station resupply capabilities?
The European Space Agency has called on industry to develop low Earth orbit cargo transportation capabilities to service the International Space Station and commercial space stations. The call was originally published on 11 May with a more comprehensive look at the programme being shared on 31 May. In anticipation of the reveal of which companies have been selected by ESA for the first phase of the programme later this year, I thought I’d take a few educated guesses about which companies are likely to submit proposals and what form those proposals may take.
The baseline requirements outlined by the agency are that any proposed solution be required to transport two tonnes of cargo to a space station in low Earth orbit and return one tonne of cargo back to Earth at the conclusion of the vehicle’s mission. The solutions will be required to be launch vehicle agnostic, allowing it to be launched aboard a number of different rockets. Any proposed solution will also be required to be ready for a demonstration flight by 2028.
ESA’s financial contribution to the development of the selected proposals will be small with the agency instead committing to act as an anchor customer for the service. Companies pitching to take part in the programme will, as a result, be required to put up the bulk of the financing to develop, build, and launch their respective solutions. A benefit of this approach is that by ESA not committing significant financial support, the agency is able to act quickly without needing to wait until the 2025 ministerial meeting to get approval from member states. The timeline reflects this with the first two phases of the programme set to be completed before the next ministerial meeting.
Phase 1-1 (Sep. 2023 – June 2024) - Two companies will be selected to advance their concepts up to a preliminary design phase. Companies will also be required to have secured appropriate third-party financing to continue development.
Phase 1-2 (July 2024 – Dec 2025) - Companies that successfully complete Phase 1-1 will be required to produce test articles to de-risk the most critical areas of their respective designs. Again, companies will be required to show continued success in securing third-party financing.
Phase 2 (Jan 2026 – Dec 2028) - The final development step leading up to a demonstration mission to the ISS before the end of 2028. Interestingly, any company will be able to compete in this phase regardless of their involvement in the first two phases.
A total of €2 million has been set aside by ESA for Phases 1-1 of the programme. The size of the financial support that will be awarded in subsequent phases is yet to be announced.
ESA has published the evaluation criteria that will be considered when evaluating each submission, and it makes for some interesting reading. Technical credibility, financial credibility, quality and suitability of the proposed programme, business potential, and European content (how much of the work is being done in Europe and how much value is it bringing to ESA member states) are all weighted equally in the evaluation criteria with a weighting factor of 19% each. The final 5% will be for the proposal’s compliance with administrative and contract conditions.
Contender #1 - The Exploration Company
We don’t have to speculate whether or not The Exploration Company will compete for one of the commercial cargo contracts because the company’s CEO has already made a public statement to that effect. On 4 June, Hélène Huby published a post on LinkedIn with the aim of recruiting key personnel to design, manufacture and operate "the first European cargo capsule that will go to the ISS and commercial space stations". Although this statement is only half true since the ATV was the first European cargo capsule to go to the ISS, Huby is nonetheless unambiguous about the company's intention to build a capsule capable of answering ESA's call.
The Exploration Company is currently already in the process of developing Nyx, a modular reusable spacecraft capable of hosting up to 4,000 kilograms of experiments in low Earth orbit and returning them to Earth after three to six months. On the road to launching the maiden Nyx mission in 2026, the company is developing a pair of subscale demonstrators, the first of which is scheduled to be launched aboard the maiden Ariane 6 flight. The Exploration Company is also already well on its way to funding Nyx. The company closed a €40.5 million Series A funding round in February that was led by EQT Group and Red River West. The 4,000-kilogram payload capacity will likely take a hit as the capability is stated in terms of a free-flying configuration and a docking port and its associated systems will eat into that capability. All things considered, however, Nyx and The Exploration Company appear to be an obvious choice for one of the two Phase 1-1 spots.
Contender #2 - Airbus and Thales Alenia Space
The original ESA contract to build the European ATV, the only European-made cargo vessel to resupply the ISS, was awarded to Aérospatiale. The company is also notable as being the primary contractor behind every Ariane vehicle up to and including Ariane 5. However, in the late 1990s, the company restructured and splintered with multiple mergers and acquisitions following. Today, the two main beneficiaries of the Aérospatiale assets and know-how are Thales Alenia Space and Airbus, through its Airbus Defence and Space subsidiary.
If this historical connection wasn’t reason enough to partner up to answer the ESA call to develop a new spacecraft capable of resupplying the ISS, the pair are also working closely together on the European Service Module that will provide power, propulsion, and consumables to NASA’s crewed Orion spacecraft. It is, as a result, not a significant leap to think that together the pair would be able to submit a formidable bid that few would be able to match. As a consortium, the pair would also be able to share the cost of developing, building, and launching the vehicle.
Contender #3 - Avio and ArianeGroup
Space Rider was designed as a free-flying robotic mini space station that would ensure Europe could retain in-orbit experimentation infrastructure once the ISS was decommissioned. It is currently not remotely capable of fulfilling the 2,000-kilogram cargo baseline, but its design does have the benefit of years of development behind it. In fact, a “test article” of the vehicle, the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle, has already made its way into space and back again, which gives the concept flight heritage. There is, however, a problem with using an upscaled Space Rider variant as a proposal to answer ESA’s call.
Although Avio may be able to lead a consortium of Space Rider contractors, it's unclear if the company has any rights to the return module. As the prime contractor of the return module, Thales Alenia Space has already shown that it is able to pursue the development of a Space Rider variant without Avio with the company revealing the REV-1 "flying factory" concept with its new partner Space Cargo Unlimited in late 2022. And if Thales is to go ahead with a joint bid with Airbus, the company is unlikely to give an Avio-led consortium any leg up with the development of its own concept. There is, however, another option.
On April 28, ArianeGroup announced its "Space Case" service. The concept involved a small return vehicle that would be capable of hosting experiments in orbit and then returning them to Earth. According to the post, the company already has a prototype called SC-X01 that it developed in conjunction with ESA and the Way4Space innovation centre in France. The whole announcement consisted of a single LinkedIn post and has otherwise not been widely publicized, which is a little strange for ArianeGroup. Nonetheless, an upscaled version of Space Case may well be the perfect companion to an upscaled AVUM+ upper stage with its life extension kit (an addition to the standard Vega C upper stage that enables it to operate in orbit for up to six months as the service module for Space Rider). Avio and ArianeGroup also already have an existing relationship, having worked on the P120C booster that is being utilized by both Vega C and Ariane 6.
ArianeGroup could also submit its Susie concept with a consortium of French companies and financial backing from the France 2030 plan. However, considering the size and complexity of a concept that is yet to receive much if any development, I don’t see it being ready for a maiden flight in 2028.
Contender #4 - Space Forge
Space Forge is developing in-orbit manufacturing capabilities with its ForgeStar platform. The system includes a return capsule that would be utilised to deliver manufactured components or products back to Earth. Developing a low Earth orbit cargo spacecraft would, as a result, be more of a shift in focus than some of the other contenders. However, with the UK government identifying space as an industry of importance for its future, it would not be surprising if a consortium of companies from the union is being prepared to answer ESA’s call. And what company would be better to lead that consortium than one already developing a key component of the required system? In fact, the company has already launched its first demonstration mission. However, it was aboard the ill-fated final Virgin Orbit LauncherOne flight on 9 January that resulted in the destruction of the demonstrator.
Europe has the will and expertise to answer ESA’s call to develop a space station resupply service by 2028. The one question that remains unanswered is whether or not there are sufficient financial resources to call upon in order to make one or even two of these services a reality. The Exploration Company has already shown that reusable spacecraft projects can secure large funding rounds and that’s even before ESA committed to being an anchor customer to a space station resupply service. It would appear that all that’s left is for at least one company to deliver.
Great balls of fire - Rocket Factory Augsburg successfully completed a full-duration hot fire test of an RFA ONE upper stage. The 280-second hot fire marks the competition of the stage’s Integrated System Test campaign. The stage used for the test will also be utilised aboard the maiden flight of the RFA One. According to the company, the next major milestone for RFA will be working towards a hot fire test of an integrated RFA ONE first stage. The successful completion of that milestone will pave the way for the vehicle’s maiden flight which will lift off from SaxaVord spaceport in Scotland.
No fire on the menu today - A launch attempt of the maiden PLD Space Miura 1 vehicle was aborted due to unfavorable upper wind speeds. The company has yet to release a rescheduled launch date. The launch also hit a hiccup earlier in the day with a hold called due to irregular LOX loading behaviour. However, the countdown was allowed to continue after a short period before the attempt was finally aborted.
Preparing for the future - ESA awarded contracts to ArianeGroup, Avio, The Exploration Company, and SENER to study solutions for future European expendable and reusable launch systems covering micro/mini, medium, heavy, and human-rated applications. The studies are intended to expand on the work done for the agency’s Vision 2030+ initiative which was initiated by the ESA Space Transportation directorate in August 2021. The baseline for the initiative envisions small, medium, and heavy space transportation systems which are all based on a common set of building blocks.
Vega C has a lot of work waiting for it - The Korea Aerospace Research Institute has selected Arianespace to launch its Kompsat-6 Earth observation satellite aboard an Avio-built Vega C rocket. The launch is scheduled for no earlier than December 2024 from the Guiana Space Center.
A new president and board of directors for ASI - Italy’s Committee for Aerospace Policies met 29 May to approve the appointment of both the new president and the new board of directors for the Italian Space Agency (ASI). The committee was chaired by Minister for Enterprise and Made in Italy Adolfo Urso who confirmed Teodoro Valente as the agency’s new president. The agency’s new directors are Giuseppe Basini, Marica Branchesi, Stefano Gualandris, Marco Lisi, Luisa Riccardi, and Elda Turco Bulgherini. Three of the six new board members are women, which is the highest female representation the board has seen in the agency’s history.
With your powers combined - At the opening session of the European Navigation Conference, ESA signed contracts with Thales, Airbus Defence and Space, and Thales Six GTS to provide system engineering and technical assistance for Europe’s second generation of Galileo navigation satellites. The signing of the contracts means that the programme is now ready for its In Orbit Validation development phase. Two additional contracts for the security chain and a PRS system test bed are expected to be awarded soon. This new generation of Galileo satellites will be equipped with electric propulsion for the first time, higher strength navigation antenna, and will be capable of inter-satellite links. The satellite’s payloads are also designed to be easily reconfigured, allowing the constellation to respond to the continent’s evolving needs.
One small step for Europe - ESA hosted the Ready for the Moon event in Vienna. Participants discussed the findings of an independent high-level advisory group that recommended that the ESA should develop crewed launch capabilities with the aim of conducting a lunar landing within 10 years. According to the agency, the bold ambition outlined by Director General Josef Aschbacher and the advisory group received “enthusiastic support from politicians, business leaders, and independent experts from across Europe.”
Reporting from above the Red Planet - To celebrate the 20th anniversary of ESA’s Mars Express mission, the agency held a livestream event that featured views of the Red Planet beamed to Earth from the satellite’s Visual Monitoring Camera in near real-time. The event lasted for an hour and was described by ESA as the “closest you can get to a live view from the Red Planet.”