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ESA Shuffles Copernicus Sats Amidst Launcher Uncertainty

Sentinel-1C as it would be configured on orbit.
Credit: ESA

Amidst schedule delays and uncertainties surrounding the return to flight of the Vega launch vehicle, the European Space Agency and European Commission are considering the purchase of an American Falcon 9 rocket to launch their Sentinel-1C climate satellite, with a decision expected in the coming days or weeks. 

At a press briefing Jan. 11, Simonetta Cheli, director of Earth observation at the European Space Agency, stated that the agency will decide in the near future whether to switch the Sentinel-1C radar imaging satellite from Vega C to Falcon 9. This mirrors a similar undertaking to the Euclid space telescope, which switched from Soyuz after the war in Ukraine precluded use of the Russian Soyuz rocket. ESA, she said, is providing information to the Commission “in terms of options for launch” of the spacecraft. “The Commission is assessing all elements and in the coming days and weeks, we’ll take a final decision considering a backup option of Falcon 9.”

Sentinel-1C is part of Copernicus, the Earth climate and observation program jointly run by ESA and the European Commission. The program aims to rapidly characterize the planet to monitor climate and natural disasters and assist governments in security efforts. The spacecraft will fill a gap in synthetic aperture radar observations caused by the power failure onboard Sentinel-1B, which launched in April 2016. Copernicus has been using data from the nearly decade-old Sentinel-1A and from other SAR spacecraft while Sentinel-1C undergoes final checkouts for launch, a less-than-ideal solution for domestic capability.

ESA announced in 2022 that Sentinel-1C would launch on Vega C in 2023, although there was discussion about moving up the launch to late 2022, if at all possible. However, Vega C remains grounded after a launch in December 2022 ended in failure after the Zefiro 40 upper stage’s casing ruptured. This, combined with difficulties in testing and recertification, have resulted in an uncertain timeline for Vega-C’s return to flight. 

The launch of a Vega vehicle in 2017.
Credit: ESA

At the briefing, Toni Tolker-Nielsen, ESA’s director of space transportation, said the return to flight for Vega C is “currently scheduled for mid-November” but suggested that it could slip by a month. “It should be at least before the end of the year. We’re pretty sure of that.” Moving Sentinel-1C to Falcon 9 could potentially enable an earlier launch, although ESA officials at the briefing did not estimate by how much. “There is the need to launch Sentinel-1C as soon as possible to respond to user requirements of the community,” Cheli said. That shift would also address concerns about placing a key mission on the return to flight of Vega C.

Europe’s uncertainty about the return to flight for Vega-C indicates greater industry instability across the continent, with the prime contractor, Avio, running into production line issues for the AVUM upper stage in recent months. More broadly, ESA has also faced uncertainty in getting their new mainstay launch vehicle, Ariane 6, online, following the retirement of their Ariane 5 lifter. ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher stated recently that the continent finds itself in the midst of “an acute launcher crisis” because of the “unavailability of home-grown rockets.” The lack of domestic options, combined with geopolitical instability, have backed Europe into an unfortunate corner, one in which the former champion of commercial launch no longer reigns supreme.

While ESA has announced their target date for the first flight of Ariane 6, sometime between June 15 and July 30 of this year, it is not expected to ramp up to full operational cadence until mid-2025 at the earliest. ArianeGroup CEO Martin Sion has suggested that the company may not have “understood the reality of the situation” when it promised to debut Ariane 6 by 2020, and was unable to give a solid answer when pressed about the sustainability and competitiveness of the launcher on a global scale. 

For now, ESA and the European continent face a difficult choice: to wait for launch vehicles to come online, and necessary checks and safety work to be done, or to purchase rides on competitor vehicles. A future fleet of commercial launchers remains on the horizon for the continent, with a variety of companies vying to fill the gaps in Europe’s space capability. For Sentinel-1C, the future remains uncertain, but the mere consideration of an alternate path is a telling glimpse into a continental launcher crisis.

Edited by Beverly Casillas 

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