Securing Europe’s Access to Low Earth Orbit

As announced earlier this week, the European Space Agency (ESA) is gearing up for a significant leap in its exploration strategy to secure sustained access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The Call for Proposals to develop the first phase of this Service Development and Demonstration Mission has been issued today and proposals can be submitted through the Agency’s online tender portal ESA Star.

The LEO Cargo Return Service, whose development is started by this call, will ensure the participation of European industry in the emerging post-ISS LEO ecosystem. This forward-looking venture takes place at a time where the landscape of space exploration is evolving rapidly, with a blend of institutional and commercial actors venturing into missions destined for LEO, the Moon, and Mars.

A Strategic Vision for European Space Exploration

ESA has contributed to the development and operations of the ISS and in return is entitled to  utilisation rights and crew time, as well as opportunities in the Artemis missions to return humans to the Moon. In addition, ESA will contribute significantly to the Gateway and, in return will fly at least three European Astronauts to this future human outpost in cis-lunar space.

With the transition towards an ecosystem of commercial space stations, that are operated by private entities, opportunities for bartering with other space agencies will decline.

This is an opportunity for Europe to provide cargo transportation services to commercial LEO station operators, and an opportunity for European industry to develop a commercial service to be offered on the global market. At the Space Summit in Seville, which took place on 6th November 2023, ESA consolidated the plans for the LEO Cargo Return Service as 22 Member States came together to pave the way for the implementation.

This Call for Proposals will give European companies the opportunity to initiate the activities necessary to enable a demonstration mission for this service; it will ensure that the best solution is selected; and that Europe continues to maintain its position at the forefront of a rapidly evolving exploration landscape.

An Incremental Approach for Flexibility and Affordability

ESA proposes an incremental implementation approach. This approach offers an optimized and flexible path to achieving a technically sound and financially sustainable programme. The first step focuses on developing a LEO cargo return service and preparing a Demonstration Mission to enable ESA’s participation in the post-ISS LEO ecosystem by 2028.

Subsequent steps subject to future decisions may include performing the Demonstration Mission, the provision of operational cargo services, as well as the potential development of a LEO crew transportation service and cislunar cargo return service. This phased approach allows Member States to set priorities and pace, ensuring a balanced mix of immediate action and preparation for future evolutions.

Phased and Competitive Procurement for the LEO Cargo Return Service

In order to enable a demonstration of the service at the ISS before its end of life in the early 2030s, ESA proposed a phased and competitive procurement process for the first LEO cargo return service. ESA will issue a competitive call for proposals, providing high-level requirements while leaving room for potential future evolution towards a LEO crew service and cislunar cargo return.

The procurement process emphasizes competition, service contracts, swift execution, co-funding, and tailored milestone definition. This approach aims to establish cost-effective procurement models, enhance risk-sharing, and foster collaboration between private and public players.

Benefits of the Proposed Approach

The proposed LEO Cargo Return Service project offers several key benefits:

  • Business Opportunities for European industry: Unique opportunity toembark on a journey culminating with the demonstration of a competitive service on the commercial LEO landscape.
  • Continuity in LEO Utilisation: The project ensures continuity in LEO utilisation during the transition from the ISS to the post-ISS LEO economy.
  • Private Capital: Enabling European providers to raise private capital, crucial for the startup ecosystem, and secure timely deals with Commercial LEO Destination providers.
  • Risk and Cost-sharing: Implementing risk- and cost-sharing mechanisms between ESA and service providers through co-funding.
  • Contribution to Future Exploration: Serving as one of the possible solutions for potential LEO crew service and/or cislunar cargo return, aligning with future exploration goals.
  • Test Case for Transformation: Providing a test case for transforming ESA project management and procurement approaches, accommodating both established and startup companies.

ESA’s LEO Cargo Return Service initiative represents a significant step toward securing Europe’s role in the evolving landscape of space exploration. The phased approach, coupled with competitive procurement and strategic partnerships, positions ESA to make substantial contributions to the future of LEO utilization, establishing a foundation for broader exploration goals in the coming decades.

Register for the Briefing Meeting

On 8th January 2024, the Agency will host a briefing meeting to provide further information about the Call for Proposals to industry.

All details for the registration to the briefing meeting will be published as a clarification to the issued Call for Proposals. Make sure to register and log in to the esa-star system to receive all information related to the subject Call for Proposals.

Read more