On Saturday, Aug. 27, SpaceX set a new record. Bundling aboard a batch of 54 Starlink satellites to loft into space, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off with a record 16.7 metric tons of payload -- its most ever. According to data from SpaceXStats.xyz, it appears this launch also set a new record for most mass launched by a single company in a single year: 300 tons so far in 2022.
As impressive as that number sounds, though, Europe wants to absolutely bury it -- and build a rocket that can launch 10,000 tons per year.
10,000 tons of what?
Europe outlined its idea in a "Preliminary Elements on European Reusable and Cost-Effective Heavy Lift Transportation" (code name: PROTEIN) proposal from the European Space Agency (the "ESA" -- Europe's version of NASA) in June. According to this document, PROTEIN will be a new "European Heavy Lift Launcher" that's much larger and more powerful than SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 -- and reusable.
Europe sees a need for this rocket because, as the ESA explains, by 2035 there will be a need for large rockets that can fulfill both "deep space missions" away from Earth, and "accommodate large space infrastructures" such as "space-based solar power" in Earth orbit. Many investors worry today that space is a place with too many rocket companies chasing too few payloads -- resulting in an oversupply of rockets, and an increasing number of bankrupt space companies -- if you look way down the road, this situation could reverse itself.
Referring to the proposal, Ars Technica notes that Europe is in the early stages of exploring a project -- dubbed "Solaris" -- to transmit space-based solar power down to Earth. As Ars Technica describes it, the plan is to use robots to assemble solar panels in orbit, there to collect as much as 1,000 terawatts of solar energy annually -- and then wirelessly beam that energy down to collection stations on Earth in the form of microwave radiation.
It is estimated that the cost of this project would run to the "hundreds of billions of euros," and require the construction of "massive facilities in geostationary orbit," each as much as 4,500 tons, to collect the solar power. Hence the need for rockets to put them in orbit -- 10,000 tons worth of them per year.
Competing with SpaceX
There's an obvious solution to this problem Europe has of how to put 10,000 tons of payload in orbit annually. SpaceX's own Starship heavy lift rocket is expected to be able to carry at least 100 tons per launch, once it's operational. And 100 Starship launches times 100 tons equals 10,000 tons -- problem solved.
Granted, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk isn't personally a fan of space-based solar power. He's called it "the stupidest thing ever" because of the inherent inefficiency of capturing photons from the sun, converting them to electrons, reconverting them to photons for transmission to Earth, and reconverting them again to electrons for use as power. In Musk's view, setting up solar panels on Earth is probably both more efficient and cheaper than solar power in space -- and nuclear power on Earth may be even more efficient:
Countries should be increasing nuclear power generation! It is insane from a national security standpoint & bad for the environment to shut them down.-- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 26, 2022
In any case, Europe doesn't want to depend on Elon Musk to support this project. To the contrary, for years Europe has complained about SpaceX and the threat it poses to Europe's own space program. According to Airbus (EADSY 0.18%) subsidiary Arianespace, for example, between the low prices it charges for space launch, and its low cost of operations enabled by flying reusable rockets, SpaceX has the potential to drive it and other European space firms completely out of business.
To forestall that disaster scenario, in 2019 the European Commission authorized funding a project to develop a new reusable rocket of its own, to compete with SpaceX's Falcon 9. So far, that project hasn't made a whole lot of progress. But the prospect of a payday measured in the "hundreds of billions of euros" -- Solaris -- just might be big enough to convince Europe's space companies to finally get the job done.
Even if Solaris turns out to be the boondoggle Musk says it is, if it can give Europe the impetus it needs to build its own reusable rockets, that might finally permit Arianespace to be able to compete with SpaceX on price.