16th Jan 2023
In a vast remote wilderness setting some 200km north of the arctic circle, Europe’s first mainland satellite launch port is taking shape.
Inaugurated on Friday (13 January) by the King of Sweden, along with European Commission president Von der Leyen, the space port known as Esrange is set to launch satellites and reusable Themis rockets in the near future.
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The port is part a bigger plan to give Europe a more competitive edge in an industry currently dominated by the United States.
“We need to catch up and this is the way to do it. We need a reusable launcher with liquid propulsion in order to have this capability that is now the standard in the world,” said Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency (ESA).
That rocket comes in the shape of the Themis space launcher, composed of three reusable engines running on liquid oxygen and methane.
Test flights are planned for next year at the Esrange port, then at the European space port in Kourou, French Guiana.
Suborbital tests are scheduled in 2025, posing questions on why the Europeans continue to lag behind the likes of Elon Musk’s SpaceX programme and his Starlink satellites that are providing high-band internet vital for Ukraine in its war with Russia.
“I would have hoped that we were doing that but as usual, the Americans are bit quicker. But I am sure we can find our niche in that and provide support for [secure] connectivity,” said Ollie Norberg, who heads the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Kiruna.
Founded by the ESA in 1966, the Esrange space port is already one the world’s largest ground stations that provide ground to space connectivity and has fired around 600 suborbital research rockets over the years, some carrying low-gravity payloads.
But there is also money to be made. The ESA estimates the space economy is currently valued at $350bn globally and is set to grow to $1 trillion in the coming decades. The hope is that the Esrange space port will also attract new talent.
“I think we need this kind of port to attract a new generation like Elon Musk and there is a brain drain of our talent to the US, so we need to be inspirational and attractive for the young generation,” said Claudie Haignere, Europe’s first female astronaut.
This includes a new ESA mission set for launch this year to explore signs of life on three icy moons off of Jupiter.
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Located in Sweden’s Kiruna municipality, the space port’s ground area is equivalent to twice the size of Luxembourg. Its remote location was selected to reduce the impact risks of falling rockets and or other possible debris.
But for the local indigenous Sami people, the space centre is another headache following a recent announcement of a nearby massive reserve of rare earth oxides, set to be mined.
“We have concerns about the space centre,” said Stefan Mikaelsson, deputy chair of the board of the Sami Parliament.
“The information we have is that is also some military activity and I can see a spreading of the militarisation of the Artic from the Swedish state,” he said.
Mikaelsson, who is also a reindeer herder, said military jets fly low during the spring. He described that time of year as a “birth chamber for reindeer calves, elk calves and other animals”.
“It is a time of year when military activities should be as low as possible but instead they are increasing with planes in the air,” he said.
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