In a vast remote wilderness some 200 km north of the Arctic Circle, Europe’s first land-based satellite launch port is taking shape.
The spaceport known as Esrange, which was opened on Friday (January 13th) by Sweden’s king, along with European Commission President Von der Leyen, is set to launch satellites and reusable Themis rockets in the near future.
The port is part of a larger 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 liquid-propellant launcher 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 form of the Themis Space Launcher, made up of three reusable engines that run on liquid oxygen and methane.
Test flights are planned next year at the Esrange port, then at the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
Suborbital tests are scheduled for 2025, raising questions about why Europeans continue to lag behind Elon Musk’s SpaceX program and its Starlink satellites that provide broadband internet vital to Ukraine in its war with Russia.
“I would hope we do, but as usual, the Americans are a bit faster. But I’m sure we can find our niche in that and provide support for [secure] connectivity,” said Ollie Norberg, who heads the Swedish Institute for Space Physics in Kiruna.
Established by ESA in 1966, the Esrange spaceport is already one of the world’s largest ground stations enabling connectivity between earth and space and has launched around 600 suborbital research rockets over the years, some of which carried low-gravity payloads.
But that’s where you can make money. ESA estimates that the space economy is currently valued at $350 billion globally and will grow to $1 trillion in the coming decades. Hopefully the Esrange spaceport will also attract new talent.
“I think we need this type of port to attract a new generation like Elon Musk and there is an outflow of our talent to the US, so we need to be inspiring and attractive to the young generation,” said Claudie Haignere, Europe’s first female astronaut.
This includes a new ESA mission to be launched this year to look for signs of life on Jupiter’s three icy moons.
Located in the Swedish municipality of Kiruna, the area of the spaceport is equal to twice the size of Luxembourg. Its remote location was chosen to reduce the risk of being hit by rockets and/or other possible debris.
But for the local indigenous Sami people, the space center is another headache following the recent announcement of a nearby huge reserve of rare earth oxides, which will be mined.
“We are concerned about the space center,” said Stefan Mikaelsson, deputy chairman of the Sami Parliament committee.
“The information we have is that there are also some military activities and I see the expansion of the militarization of the Arctic from the Swedish state,” he said.
Mikaelsson, who is also a reindeer breeder, said military planes fly low during the spring. He described that time of year as “a breeding ground for reindeer, elk and other animals.”
“It’s a time of year when military activity should be as low as possible, but instead it increases with planes in the air,” he said.