ESA selects Thales Alenia Space and The Exploration Company for the commercial cargo programme

WASHINGTON – The European Space Agency has selected one of the continent’s largest space companies and one of its best-funded startups for study contracts that could lead to commercial cargo and crew vehicles.

ESA announced on May 22 that it has awarded contracts worth around 25 million euros ($27 million) each to Thales Alenia Space and The Exploration Company. The two companies will further develop their concepts for vehicles designed to transport cargo to and from the International Space Station and commercial space stations.

“Today, ESA has further proven its leadership in space for Europe and European citizens. The signing of the contracts for cargo return services in low Earth orbit shows how ESA has modernized to meet the demands of the next era of the space economy,” said Josef Aschabcher, ESA Director General, in a statement declaration.

ESA announced plans for the cargo vehicle program at the European Space Summit in Seville, Spain, last November. The program, modeled after NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) efforts nearly two decades ago, will support commercially developed vehicles that can provide cargo transportation services and later be developed into crewed spacecraft.

The contracts with Thales Alenia Space and The Exploration Company include initial design work on their vehicles. ESA will seek funding for later phases at its next ministerial meeting in late 2025, with the aim of having at least one vehicle ready for use by 2028.

Thales Alenia Space, one of Europe’s largest space companies, is offering a capsule that will be compatible with the ISS, commercial space stations and the lunar Gateway. Thales facilities in Italy and France will be involved in the project, together with Altec, a joint venture of Thales Alenia Space Italia and the Italian Space Agency ASI, for the ground segment.

“Using its expertise in infrastructure and vehicles for space exploration, the company, fully in line with the vision of the European Space Agency, aims to invest in the development of technological solutions to give Europe sustainable access to low orbit. earth,” said Massimo Comparini, deputy CEO and senior executive vice president of Thales Alenia Space, in a statement.

The Nyx spacecraft
An illustration of The Exploration Company’s Nyx capsule for flying cargo into space, resupplying space stations, and ultimately transporting people. Credit: The Exploration Company

The Exploration Company is a startup working on spacecraft designed to transport cargo to and from Earth orbit and into cislunar space. The first demonstration mission will take place on the inaugural Ariane 6 launch, now scheduled for the first half of June. The company raised $44 million in a Series A round in early 2023, one of the largest seed rounds for a European space startup.

“We want to fly to the space station in ’27, so we have already started work on the last spacecraft,” said Hélène Huby, CEO of The Exploration Company, in an interview during the 39e Space symposium last month. That vehicle, she said, would be ready for a preliminary design review this summer.

While bidding for the ESA program, Huby said she was working to win business from U.S. companies working on commercial space stations. The company announced earlier this month that it had opened a U.S. office led by Mark Kirasich, a former NASA official whose roles at the agency included Orion program manager.

“If all goes well,” she said at the time, “we will have an American customer and a European customer.”

ESA did not immediately reveal how many companies submitted proposals, or why the agency selected two, while previously stating it could select as many as three. ESA officials previously said they had seen strong interest in the program based on participation in tender meetings.

Among the companies that expressed interest in the competition were ArianeGroup, which has proposed a reusable vehicle called SUSIE, and Rocket Factory Augsburg, which earlier this year announced a cargo vehicle called Argo, which it presented in collaboration with Space Cargo Unlimited and ATMOS Space Cargo. .

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