Eumetsat moves weather satellite from Ariane 6 to Falcon 9

WASHINGTON — European weather satellite operator Eumetsat has moved an upcoming weather satellite launch from an Ariane 6 to a Falcon 9, a move that surprised and frustrated European space officials.

In a statement released late June 28, Eumetsat announced that the geostationary meteorological satellite Meteosat Third Generation-Sounder 1 (MTG-S1) will now be launched on a Falcon 9 in 2025. The spacecraft was originally scheduled to be launched in early 2025 on an Ariane 6.

“This decision was driven by exceptional circumstances,” Eumetsat CEO Phil Evans said in a statement, without giving details of the circumstances. “This does not compromise our usual policy of supporting European partners, and we look forward to SpaceX’s successful launch of this masterpiece of European technology.”

The spacecraft is the second in the Meteosat family of third-generation meteorological satellites in geostationary orbit, following the launch of MTG-I1 on one of the latest Ariane 5 rockets in December 2022. MTG-S1 is the first to carry a sounding instrument capable of providing vertical profiles of temperature and water vapor to improve weather forecasts.

Eumetsat noted in its statement that MTG-S1 “will bring a revolution in weather forecasting and climate monitoring” and suggested moving the launch to Falcon 9 to ensure it would launch on schedule.

“Its launch will ensure that national meteorological services can benefit from new and more accurate data to protect lives, property and infrastructure,” he said. “As such, EUMETSAT Member States have decided to award a launch service contract to SpaceX for the launch of the Meteosat Third Generation-Sounder 1 (MTG-S1) satellite on a Falcon 9 rocket in 2025.”

The agency did not respond to questions about the launch change submitted before releasing the statement. The launch change was first reported on June 27 by the French newspaper The world.

The move appears to have surprised leaders of European space organizations, who have publicly expressed shock and disappointment at Eumetsat’s decision not to use Ariane 6 less than two weeks before that rocket’s scheduled launch.

“Clearly, today is a very disappointing day for European space efforts,” Philippe Baptiste, director of the French space agency CNES, said in a social media post. He called the decision “a pretty abrupt change” given the timing.

“I am impatiently waiting to understand what reasons could have led Eumetsat to such a decision, at a time when all the major European space countries as well as the European Commission are calling for the launch of European satellites on European launchers! he wrote.

He called on the European Commission to implement a form of “buy European” regulation that would require European government missions to be launched on European rockets. “This illustrates, once again, the urgent need for strong European coordination in the space domain.”

Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency, also described Eumetsat’s decision as “surprising”. a June 29 social media post. “It’s hard to understand, especially since Ariane 6 is on track for its maiden flight on July 9, and everything is theoretically going well.”

He stressed that Eumetsat’s decision would not affect the ramp-up of Ariane 6 launches, provided the inaugural launch in July is successful. A second launch, which would be a commercial launch managed by Arianespace, is planned before the end of the year.

Arianespace has a backlog of 30 Ariane 6 launches, Caroline Arnoux, head of Ariane 6 programs at Arianespace, said at an ESA briefing on June 25. This includes 18 launches of Project Kuiper satellites for Amazon, as well as for other commercial and government customers.

She said Arianespace is considering six Ariane 6 launches in 2025, then eight in 2026 and ten in 2027. The vehicle’s maximum flight cadence is expected to be 9 to 12 launches per year.

Lucía Linares, ESA’s Head of Space Transportation Strategy and Institutional Launches, stressed the importance of government customers for Ariane 6. “First and foremost, we developed Ariane 6 – designed, developed and now on its way to the maiden launch – to serve European institutional missions,” she said. “That is the main reason why the public sector is funding this launcher and why we have guaranteed access to space.”

Eumetsat is, however, not the first European institutional customer to select the Falcon 9 for its launches, particularly during the “launcher crisis” which limited European access to space. The ESA launched its Euclid space telescope on a Falcon 9 a year ago, followed in May by the launch of EarthCARE, a joint Earth science mission with the Japanese space agency JAXA. Another Falcon 9 will launch ESA’s Hera asteroid mission in October.

The European Commission has also selected Falcon 9 to launch the Galileo navigation satellites, with one Falcon 9 launching two satellites in April and another pair due to launch later this year.

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