Arctic Sweden in Europe’s satellite launch race

As mercury drops to minus 20 degrees Celsius, a research rocket takes off from one of the world’s northernmost space centers and its burner glows in the twilight of Sweden’s snowy Arctic forests.

Hopes are high that a rocket like this could carry a satellite this year, which could be the first satellite launch from a continental European spaceport.

About an hour from the mining town of Kiruna, the launch pad has no people in sight, only the occasional herd of reindeer in summer.

The vast desolate forests are why the Swedish space center is located here at the foot of “Radar Peak”, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) above the Arctic Circle.

“We have 5,200 square kilometers (2,007 square miles) of uninhabited territory in this area, so we can easily launch a rocket flying and falling into this area without harming anyone,” said Mattias Abrahamsson, head of business development in Sweden. Space Corporation (SSC) reports to AFP.

Esrange space center, which was established by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 1966 to study the atmosphere and the Northern Lights phenomenon, has invested heavily in its facilities to send satellites into space.

Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will inaugurate the site’s three new launch pads on Friday.

Philip Pahlsson, head of the “New Esrange” project, pulls a heavy blue door in a new hangar large enough to house two 30-foot rockets currently being assembled elsewhere.

In the pink twilight of the afternoon, new launch pads are visible in the distance.

“Satellite launches will start from here next year,” Pahlsson says.

“This is a major breakthrough, the biggest step we’ve taken since Esrange’s founding.”

More than 600 suborbital rockets have already been launched from this remote corner of Sweden in the far north. Among them is Suborbital Express 3, where the temperature witnessed the launch of AFP in late November was -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit).

While these rockets are capable of reaching space at an altitude of 260 kilometers, they cannot enter Earth orbit.

– Rising business –

But as Europe prepares to launch its first satellite soon, Esrange looks forward to joining an elite club of space centers, including Baikonur in Kazakhstan, Cape Canaveral in Florida and Kourou in French Guiana, Europe’s space center in South America. .

Various projects in Europe — Portugal’s Azores, Norway’s Andoya, Spain’s Andalusia, and the United Kingdom’s Shetland Islands — are racing to launch the first satellite from continental Europe.

The first attempt to launch a rocket into orbit from British soil from a Virgin Orbit Boeing 747 taking off from a spaceport in Cornwall failed earlier this week.

“We clearly think we’re the most advanced,” says SSC, which aims to start in late 2023 or early 2024.

The satellite industry is booming, and the Swedish state-owned company is in talks with several rocket manufacturers and customers looking to put their satellites into orbit.

With a reusable rocket project called Themis, Esrange will also host rocket tests that can return to Earth, such as ESA’s SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk.

While the Plesetsk base in northwestern Russia has carried out several satellite launches in the post-Cold War era, no other country in Europe has.

– Small satellites driving demand –

So why is the continent – so far from the Equator more suitable for satellite launches – suddenly seeing such a boom in the space industry?

“Satellites get smaller and cheaper, and instead of launching one large satellite, you spread it out to multiple smaller satellites, which increases demand,” Pahlsson explains.

More objects were launched into space in 2021 than ever before. And more records will be broken in the coming years.

Orbiting the North and South Poles is sufficient for many satellites, making places like Esrange more attractive.

Also, having a launch site close to European customers saves them and their satellites from long boat trips to Kourou.

In Sweden, as in the rest of Europe, the rockets in development are “microrockets”.

They are about 30 meters long and can carry a load of several hundred kilograms. In the future, SSC aims to carry more than one tonne of cargo.

But the SSC says working in the harsh Arctic climate “brings its challenges.”

Special attention should be paid to the fact that the metals used become more brittle in the cold, as temperatures regularly drop to -20 or -30 degrees Celsius.

The war in Ukraine, where the engines of the European Vega rocket were produced, and the abrupt end of the West’s space cooperation with Russia, meanwhile, increased interest in spaceports on the continent.

“Europe needs independent access to space. The dire situation in Ukraine has changed the space business,” says Pahlsson.

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