SpaceX will launch ESA navigation satellites amid delays with the EU’s own rockets

SpaceX has struck a deal with the European Space Agency (ESA) to launch four of Europe’s Galileo navigation satellites into orbit using its Falcon 9 rocket, The Wall Street Journal has reported. It’ll be the first time Elon Musk’s company has launched any EU satellites containing classified equipment.

The ESA had planned to launch Galileo satellites using its homegrown Ariane 6 rocket, but the latter has seen frequent delays and isn’t expected to make its inaugural launch until 2024 at the earliest. The deal is still subject to final approval by the EU Commission and member states, according to ESA director of navigation Javier Benedicto.

SpaceX would launch the satellites from US territory, according to the terms of the deal. It would mark the first time Galileo equipment has been carried into orbit outside of European territory, barring early test versions launched from Kazakhstan. All other Galileo satellites have launched from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana — using Soyuz rockets at first and the Ariane 5 system later on.

News of the deal isn’t a big surprise, as it was reported this summer that Europe was seeking to cut a deal with SpaceX and United Launch Alliance to “exceptionally launch Galileo satellites.” Another alternative would have been Russian-built Soyuz rockets, but that was off the table due to EU sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Ariane 6 was originally slated to launch in 2023, but multiple delays have pushed the first launch back to 2024. Recently, a short hotfire of the Vulcain 2.1 engine was delayed, and a long-duration static-fire test was pushed back from early October to late November. The Ariane 5 rocket is no longer an option, as it was retired after its final launch in July.

SpaceX’s launched Europe’s Euclid telescope in July, and is slated to launch two other EU spacecraft in the near future. As it stands, the ESA only plans to make four Galileo launches using the Falcon 9. Musk himself has had a tenuous relationship with the EU — most recently, a top European Union official is warned him about the spread of misinformation on his social network platform X amid the Israel-Hamas war.

The Galileo system is key for Europe, as it makes it independent from the US Global Positioning System (GPS) and satnav systems from Russia and China. It’s also used by EU military and security services to transmit encrypted messages. The service went live in 2016, but additional satellites are required to bolster the existing network. “It is a matter of robustness,” said Benedicto. “We have 10 satellites that are ready to be launched, and those satellites should be in space, not on the ground.”

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