The European Space Agency (ESA) has chosen SpaceX to replace Russia's space agency as the launcher of two of its high-profile missions in the next two years.
The two ESA missions chosen for SpaceX Falcon 9 launches are the dark-matter-hunting Euclid space telescope and the Hera probe, which will follow up on NASA's successful DART asteroid mission. The launches atop SpaceX rockets will take place in 2023 and 2024, respectively. Both missions were originally planned for launches by Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, aboard Soyuz rockets, but strained relationships in the wake of Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine have prompted ESA to look for other launch vendors.
The announcement was made by ESA chief Joseph Aschbacher during an information session following an ESA Council meeting streamed on the agency's YouTube channel. "We've also made large progress on a number of decisions, all together 18 decisions which were made at this council," Aschbacher told reporters at the information session. "One was on launches [...] Today a decision was made on the launch of Euclid, Earthcare and Hera. Just for everyone's information: We, the member states, have decided that Euclid and Hera are proposed to be launched on Falcon 9, and Earthcare will be launched on Vega C."
"As you all know, this is a temporary measure that we do need to launch in other launches, because of the tap out of Soyuz in particular," Aschbacher continued. The ESA chief later tweeted that "Decisions were taken to proceed with launches for #Earthcare, #Euclid and #Hera missions."
Earthcare is an ESA Earth-observing satellite that will join Europe's Copernicus program, a constellation of climate-monitoring spacecraft. As Aschbacher noted, Earthcare will now launch not on a Soyuz but on Vega C, a rocket operated by French company Arianespace that debuted this past July.
ESA's announcement stems from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and resulting sanctions that have strained relationships between Western space agencies and Roscosmos. In February 2022, Aschbacer asserted that ESA would continue to cooperate with Russia in light of the Ukrainian invasion, although space policy experts had their doubts.
Those doubts now appear to be well-founded. Aside from the Euclid, Hera, and Earthcare missions, the European Space Agency had already ended cooperation with Roscosmos on a life-hunting Mars rover program scheduled to launch later this decade.
"The circumstances which led to the suspension of the cooperation with Roscosmos — the war in Ukraine and the resulting sanctions — continue to prevail," Aschbacher tweeted at the time.