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Sweden opens first satellite launch port on EU mainland

January 13, 2023

In northern Sweden, EU and Swedish officials have inaugurated the first spaceport for satellite launches on the European Union mainland.

Esrange Space Center, Sweden
The launch of the "SubOrbital Express 3" suborbital rocket from the Esrange Space CenterImage: Marc Preel/AFP

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, King of Sweden Carl XVI Gustaf and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson inaugurated the European Union's first mainland orbital launch complex on Friday.

Spaceport Esrange, the new facility at Esrange Space Center near the northern Swedish city of Kiruna should complement the EU's current launching capabilities in French Guiana in South America.

"Europe has its foothold in space and will keep it," von der Leyen said. She added that small satellites were crucial to tracking natural disasters in real-time and, in the light of Russia's war in Ukraine, to help guarantee global security.

European space race

Various projects in Europe are vying to launch the first satellite from Europe. Earlier this week, an attempt to launch the first rocket into orbit from UK soil — from a Virgin Orbit Boeing 747 that took off from a spaceport in Cornwall — ended in failure.

The first satellite launch from Spaceport Esrange is expected in late 2023, with reusable rockets to be tested at the site, the Swedish Space Corporation said. In Sweden, the rockets being developed are "micro-rockets," around 30 meters (98.4 feet) long, capable of carrying a payload of several hundred kilos.

The Swedish state-owned company is in discussions with several rocket makers and clients who want to put their satellites in orbit. With a reusable rocket project called Themis, Esrange will also host ESA's trials of rockets able to land back on Earth, like those of SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk.

2023 set to be a blast for space exploration

Arctic spaceport

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. 

Kiruna, with a population of around 23,000, is one of the few larger settlements in the region — a town built around the world's largest underground iron ore mine, where Sweden also believes a large rare earths deposit is located, as it announced on Thursday.

 Kiruna, Sweden: A view of the LKAB iron ore mine at night.
Kiruna is Sweden's northernmost city, although inhabited for around 6,000 years, it grew in size exponentially in the 20th century as vast mineral reserves were unearthed in the areaImage: Alexander Farnsworth/picture alliance

Founded by the European Space Agency in 1966 to study the atmosphere and Northern Lights phenomenon, the Esrange space center has invested heavily in its facilities to be able to send satellites into space.

More than 600 suborbital rockets have already been launched from this remote corner of Sweden's far north. While these rockets are capable of reaching space at altitudes of 260 kilometers, they're not able to orbit Earth.

dh/msh (AP, AFP, dpa)