Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA) has unveiled plans to build Argo, a new European heavyweight cargo capsule. Argo, the ship in which the Argonauts of Greek mythology sailed on their quest for the Golden Fleece, will be used to resupply the ISS and future commercial space stations, re-enabling Europe’s cargo capabilities.
Europe has been lacking a dedicated space station resupply solution since the termination of ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) program in 2014, Argo is now poised to fill this crucial gap.
The Cargo Spacecraft
Argo features a LEO payload capacity of 3,400kg, along with approximately 13 cubic meters of pressurized cargo volume. Additionally, the capsule incorporates an inflatable atmospheric decelerator integrated into the re-entry module, facilitating the retrieval of materials and experiments from space.
Team, assemble! We collaborated with two experienced and innovative partners, @AtmosSpaceCargo and Sener, to present Argo to the @esa .— Rocket Factory Augsburg (@rfa_space) September 25, 2023
With systems like
🔥 Fenix engine
🚀 Stainless steel structures
🗺 Autonomous Guidance and Control for Rendezvous
🤝 Advanced Docking… pic.twitter.com/xmz7bf16D2
Being vehicle-agnostic, Argo is designed to be compatible with any rocket that meets the necessary payload capacity requirements, although RFA expressed its intentions to launch it using its rockets.
RFA and its competitor
The German startup, a spin-off of OHB SE, collaborated with ATMOS Space Cargo and Sener to present the vehicle for evaluation as part of the Commercial Cargo Transport Initiative (CCTI) launched by ESA in May 2023. The CCTI establishes a flexible partnership and support program, wherein private companies receive assistance from ESA in developing commercial cargo transportation services for human outposts in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
In its bid, RFA can expect strong competition from The Exploration Company, a European spacecraft manufacturer, which is also developing its capsule called Nyx. A modular and reusable spacecraft that promises a payload of up to 4,000 kilograms to LEO with mission durations spanning from 3 to 6 months, after which the payload is returned to Earth.
These services are explicitly aimed at supporting operations with the International Space Station (ISS) and future Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD). The ultimate objective of this initiative is to conduct a demonstration mission, delivering a minimum of 2 tons of pressurized cargo to the ISS and safely returning a minimum of 1 ton to Earth by the conclusion of 2028. Furthermore, the proposed solutions are required to be vehicle-agnostic. Should the initiative prove successful, ESA will proceed with formal service contracts.
About the initiative
The CCTI is composed of three phases:
- in Phase 1-1 up to two companies will be selected to advance their cargo services up to the definition of a preliminary design and secure third-party funding;
- in Phase 1-2 successful designs will be finalized and test articles will be produced to de-risk the most critical aspects;
- Phase 2 is the final step involving a demonstration mission to the ISS by the end of 2028, this phase will be open to all companies and not just those involved in Phase 1.
ESA plans to provide limited financial support for the chosen projects: 2M€ has been set aside for the execution of Phase 1-1 while financial support for the following phases is yet to be defined. ESA focuses on becoming the primary customer for the services. Hence, companies seeking to participate in the program must secure most of the funding for developing, constructing, and launching their solutions.
This approach offers the advantage of enabling ESA to expedite its actions without relying on approval from member states during the 2025 ministerial meeting, although it introduces uncertainty on whether the participating companies will successfully secure the necessary funding.