ESA prepares for post-ISS era, selects exploration company Thales Alenia to develop cargo spacecraft | TechCrunch

The European Space Agency selected two companies on Wednesday to advance designs for a cargo spacecraft that could create the continents’ first sovereign entry into space.

The two winners, aerospace major Thales Alenia Space and French startup The Exploration Company, will receive 25 million ($27 million) each to advance concepts for vehicles that can transport cargo to and from stations in low Earth orbit. . This initial phase will run until 2026, with additional competitive contract opportunities expected to follow. The goal is to have at least one capsule making a demonstration flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2028 and to have a cargo service online by the end of the decade.

Right now, Europe relies on its international partners to transport cargo and crew into space through an exchange system, the space agency explained when it announced the LEO Transport Return Service contracts last year. But the imminent deorbit of the International Space Station and the rise of privately owned space stations means Europe could be left without a meaningful way to exchange and instead have to pay money to get into space.

The LEO Cargo Return Service contract was created to hopefully invest that money in European industrial capability. Cargo service could even be a step toward a crewed transportation capability, in the same way that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has a crewed variant and a cargo-only variant.

It prepares us for the post-ISS era, strengthening the competitiveness of European industries in low-Earth orbit operations, as well as being a test case for ESA’s transformation and working differently, ESA’s director said in a statement to Human and Robotic Exploration Daniel Neuenschwander.

The LEO Shuttle Return Service contract, which was first announced last year, is similar to NASA’s Commercial Orbital Shuttle Services program that was established in 2006. That program resulted in lucrative service contracts, multi-billion dollars to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation (now part of Northrop Grumman).

However, NASA ended up paying hundreds of millions of dollars to both competitors to develop their respective capsules SpaceXs Cargo Dragon and what is now Northrops Cygnus, so the agency will have to do more lobbying to ensure it get the money it needs to fund these capsules for the rest of the decade.

Exploration Company CEO Hlne Huby said its capsule, called Nyx, is being designed to serve the International Space Station, future private space stations and NASA’s Gateway lunar orbital platform. The French startup has raised about $65 million from venture capitalists for its vehicle design, and the first flight is on track for 2026, Huby confirmed in a recent interview.

This contract is just the beginning, Huby said.

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