EU enters space race with first orbital launch site in mainland Europe

16 Jan 2023

A rocket launching from Esrange. Image: Swedish Space Corporation

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called Spaceport Esrange an ‘independent European gateway to space’.

The first orbital launch site in mainland Europe was inaugurated in Sweden’s frigid north on Friday (13 January), getting the EU involved in a growing space race.

Spaceport Esrange, which has been in development by Sweden and the European Space Agency (ESA) for several years, offers the European Union an independent gateway to space and has been described as a critical asset for the bloc’s competitiveness in the global space sector.

“It is exactly the infrastructure we need, not only to continue to innovate but also to further explore the final frontier,” said European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who was present at the inauguration along with the Swedish head of state, King Carl XVI Gustaf and Ulf Kristersson, prime minister of Sweden.

“This spaceport offers an independent European gateway to space. The important work you have been doing here for many years is a shining example of the enormous potential of space-based research to indeed improve our daily life,” said von der Leyen.

The site marks a step-up for the EU in its attempt to capitalise on what space technologies have to offer to telecommunications, navigation and even warfare – considering Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine that the EU has openly objected to.

“Security, competitiveness, sustainability and our democratic values are key to a stronger Europe and a better world. Space enables all of them,” said Anna Kinberg Batra, chair of the Swedish Space Corporation.

Batra said that Spaceport Esrange will be instrumental for reaching the EU and UN sustainability goals and strategies within security and defence.

The first operations from the site will be Europe’s initiative for reusable rocketry, known as the Themis programme. It has been commissioned by the ESA and is led by aerospace company ArianeGroup, a joint venture between Airbus and Safran based in France.

Themis will begin tests of its reusable space launcher demonstrator at the complex in 2023.

Meanwhile, Sweden’s space corporation is in “advanced discussions” with several potential rocket partners for future launches from Spaceport Esrange. A first satellite launch is expected between late 2023 and early 2024.

Last week, a historic UK mission to launch satellites ended in failure after an anomaly prevented the Virgin Orbit rocket from reaching orbit. The mission was being assisted by Ireland’s National Space Centre, which supported telemetry, tracking and control ground station services.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic