Sweden’s Arctic space center is preparing its first satellite launch in 2023 or 2024 – Copyright AFP Marc PRÉEL
As the mercury dips to minus 20 degrees Celsius, a research rocket blasts off from one of the world’s northernmost space centers, its burner glowing in the twilight of the snowy forests of Sweden’s Arctic.
Hopes are high that rockets like this could carry satellites next year, in what could be the first launch of a satellite from a spaceport in continental Europe.
At the launch pad, about an hour from the mining town of Kiruna, there is not a person in sight, just the occasional herd of reindeer.
The vast deserted forests are the reason the Swedish space center is located here, at the foot of “Radar Hill”, some 200 kilometers (124 miles) above the Arctic Circle.
“In this area we have 5,200 square kilometers (2,007 square miles) where no one lives, so we can easily launch a rocket that flies into this area and lands without anyone getting hurt,” Mattias Abrahamsson, head of business development at the Swedish company. Space Corporation (SSC), tells AFP.
Founded by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 1966 to study the atmosphere and the aurora borealis phenomenon, the Esrange space center has invested heavily in its facilities in recent years to be able to send satellites into space.
In a huge new hangar, big enough to house two 100-foot rockets currently being assembled elsewhere, Philip Pahlsson, project manager for the “New Esrange” project, opens a heavy blue door.
Under the pink twilight this afternoon, nearby construction machines can be seen busy completing work on three new launch pads.
“Satellite launches will start from here next year,” says Pahlsson.
“This has been a breakthrough, the biggest step we have taken since the inception of Esrange.”
More than 600 suborbital rockets have already been launched from this remote corner of far north Sweden, including Suborbital Express 3, whose launch in late November was witnessed by AFP when the temperature hovered at -20 degrees Celsius, or minus four degrees Fahrenheit.
While these rockets are capable of reaching space at altitudes of 260 kilometers, they cannot orbit the Earth.
– Booming business –
But with Europe preparing to send its first satellite into space soon, Esrange hopes to join a select club of space centers that include Baikonur in Kazakhstan, Cape Canaveral in Florida and Europe’s space hub in South America, Kourou in French Guiana.
Several projects in Europe, in the Azores of Portugal, the island of Andoya in Norway, Andalusia in Spain and the Shetland Islands of the United Kingdom, among others, are competing to launch the first satellite from the European continent.
“We think we are clearly the most advanced,” says the SSC, which aims to launch in late 2023 or early 2024.
The satellite industry is booming and the Swedish state-owned company is in talks with various rocket manufacturers and customers who want to put their satellites into orbit.
With a reusable rocket project called Themis, Esrange will also house ESA’s tests of rockets capable of landing on Earth, like those of SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk.
While the Plesetsk base in northwest Russia carried out several satellite launches in the post-Cold War period, no other country in Europe has done so.
– Small satellites driving demand –
So why is the continent so far from the equator, which is more suitable for satellite launches, suddenly seeing a boom in the space industry?
“Satellites are getting smaller and cheaper, and instead of launching one big satellite, you spread it out over multiple small satellites and that drives 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 enough for many satellites, making sites like Esrange more attractive.
Also, having a launch site close to European customers saves them and their satellites long boat trips to Kourou.
In Sweden, as in the rest of Europe, the rockets being developed are “micro-rockets”.
These are around 30 meters long, capable of carrying a payload of several hundred kilos. In the future, SSC is targeting payloads of more than one ton.
But working in the harsh Arctic climate “presents challenges,” says SSC.
With temperatures regularly dropping to -20 or -30 degrees Celsius, special attention must be paid to the metals used, which become more brittle in the cold.
Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine, where engines for Europe’s Vega rocket are made, and the abrupt end of Western space cooperation with Russia have heightened interest in having spaceports on the continent.
“Europe needs independent access to space. The horrible situation in Ukraine has changed the space business,” says Pahlsson.