Credit: The Exploration Company
ESA has signed two contracts with European industry to develop a commercial service capable of transporting cargo to and from the International Space Station in low Earth orbit by 2030.

On May 22, 2024 at the Space Council in Brussels, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher signed contracts with Hélène Huby from The Exploration Company based in Germany, and Massimo Comparini from Thales Alenia Space based in Italy, to develop a low Earth orbit (LEO) cargo return service.

Member States of ESA decided to launch this competition for European industry at the Space Summit in November, asking companies to propose a first step towards a cargo service to and from space stations in low Earth orbit, such as the International Space Station. Just six months later, after evaluating several proposals from European companies, ESA has selected two projects that will go ahead in the competition, awarding 25 million euros of funding to each to support them in developing the cargo service.

Today, Europe relies on its international partners to bring its cargo and crew to space, providing in exchange key contributions to international space projects, such as the Columbus laboratory on the International Space Station, or the European Service Modules which power the Orion vehicles for Artemis missions.

This competition to build a cargo service to space stations in low Earth orbit, both to the International Space Station and space stations after its lifetime, will enable ESA to continue its exploration endeavours, as well as strengthen European industry’s independence in the future low Earth orbit economy.

Next steps

The selected companies will continue working on their projects with ESA’s support in the first phase of this competition. At the Ministerial Council in 2025, ESA will present its proposal for the remaining phases of the competition to its Member States for approval.

“The LEO Cargo Return Service project exemplifies ESA’s commitment to ensuring Europe’s prominent role in space exploration. It prepares us for the post-ISS era, strengthening European industry’s competitiveness in low Earth orbit operations, as well as being a test case for the ESA transformation and working differently,” says ESA Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, Daniel Neuenschwander.

Selected companies

Thales Alenia Space, a French-Italian company, has a long history in the space industry, with pressure shells for components being machined at their premises from Turin, from Space Shuttle’s Spacelab over 40 years ago, to ESA’s Columbus laboratory on the International Space Station, to modules for the future lunar Gateway station.

The Exploration Company, a French-German company established in 2021, has quickly become a known name in the space industry. The company has been developing its Nyx capsule, aiming for a first demonstration flight this summer. ESA has already awarded a contract to the company to study European solutions for the future of the space transportation sector.

Source: ESA

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Kris Christiaens

This article was published by FutureSpaceFlight founder and chief editor Kris Christiaens. Kris Christiaens has been passionate and fascinated by spaceflight and space exploration all his life and has written hundreds of articles on space projects, the commercial space industry and space missions over the past 20 years for magazines, books and websites. In late 2021, he founded the website FutureSpaceFlight with the goal of promoting new space companies and commercial space projects and compiling news of these start-ups and companies on one website.