Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). Credits: NASA

ESA Future Strategy: Competition For a New Space Cargo Return Service

ESA spreads the opportunity for European companies to develop their space cargo return service systems, with the first flight demonstration to the ISS by 2028

The European Space Agency (ESA) has launched a competition following the latest 2023 Space Summit Council’s dispositions, for which European companies are encouraged to participate in a new project by proposing a planned document about the first steps towards the establishment of a cargo service to and from space stations in low-Earth orbit.

The ongoing advancement of space transportation services is of great importance for Europe as they underline the commitment of the European space industry to guarantee independence, thanks to the development of brand-new technologies.

Animation of LEO Cargo Return Service. Credits: ESA
Animation of LEO Cargo Return Service. Credits: ESA

In the former phase of the project, selected companies will be responsible for undertaking all necessary activities to enable the first flight demonstration to the ISS by 2028. The proposals for this endeavor will be presented by the ESA Director at the next ESA Council at the ministerial level in 2025. This initiative represents the initial stage of ESA’s ambitious space exploration program, actively supporting Europe’s ongoing venture into low-Earth orbit and its expansion towards the Moon and Mars.


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Space Summit: Strategy considerations

The Space Summit 2023 underscores ESA’s commitment to pursue an ambitious path for the benefit of Europe and its citizens. The objects of the council’s discussions were not only the concepts related to European autonomy for access to space, but also sustainability in space, the Zero Debris Initiative, carbon neutrality to be achieved by 2050, and the fight against climate change.

ESA has outlined its exploration strategy, focusing on three main destinations: Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the Moon, and Mars. In the context of maintaining a LEO presence, around 70% of the costs are attributed to cargo and crew transportation, while infrastructure development and operations constitute only 30%. Therefore, the primary challenge in LEO is launch cost reduction. Europe has a significant opportunity to provide cargo transportation services to commercial LEO station operators, offsetting European utilization costs, including astronaut flights, without a direct financial exchange.

Explanatory framework for the division of costs. Credits: ESA
Explanatory framework for the division of costs. Credits: ESA

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Looking ahead to 2025, 2030, and the future

In the past, between 2008 and 2015, the European Space Agency provided the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), a sophisticated spacecraft that successfully delivered, approximately every 17 months, 6,6 tons of cargo to the ISS. This contribution, along with the European laboratory named Columbus, facilitated regular spaceflights for European astronauts to low-Earth orbit. 

Example of Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). Credits: NASA
Example of Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). Credits: NASA

The design of the ATV is the foundation for the European Service Module (ESM), which will be responsible for propelling the crewed Orion spacecraft in NASA’s Artemis missions and substantial contributions to the Gateway project will further support European astronaut flights. ESM will send astronauts to the Moon and beyond, providing electricity, water, and oxygen as well as keeping the spacecraft at the correct temperature and on course.

Explanatory framework of the European Powerhouse. Credits: ESA
Explanatory framework of the European Powerhouse. Credits: ESA

Europe needs to uphold its technical and industrial capabilities to ensure continuous access to space and Earth re-entry, especially in the current period of geopolitical uncertainty. To secure autonomous space access, it is crucial to expedite technological advancements, implement additional measures to decrease dependence on non-European entities and enhance support from the public sector.


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Beatrice Romeo

Beatrice Romeo

Master student in Aerospace Engineering.
Ocean activist and kitesurfing athlete.

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