Sweden Is Building a Massive Space Complex—And It’ll Be Europe’s First Orbital Launch Site for Satellites

Over the past year, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has made it known that he dreams of incorporating a new city near the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, launch site into a city called Starbase. While the idea of creating a space-age haven just miles from where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico is an as-of-yet unrealized vision, a similar spaceport halfway around the world—and in the polar opposite climate—might just serve as some inspiration as the commercial space race heats up.

Near Kiruna, Sweden, north of the Arctic Circle, Esrange Space Center is taking shape thanks to revitalization efforts overseen by the publicly owned Swedish Space Corporation. With companies in the U.S. and Europe hoping to significantly increase the number of commercial satellites launched into space this decade, the Arctic space research center first handed over to Sweden by the European Space Agency in 1972 has taken on a renewed sense of purpose.

Taking off from above the Arctic Circle has its advantages, as launching into polar orbit over the North and South poles gives satellites a more comprehensive view of Earth, while requiring less energy for a satellite to actually get into space. 

All images are courtesy of SCC

Although Americans likely picture Florida or Texas as the place to launch rockets, taking off from above the Arctic Circle has its advantages. Launching into polar orbit over the North and South poles gives satellites a more comprehensive view of Earth, while requiring less energy for a satellite to actually get into space. That’s not to mention the 2,000-square-mile landing zone a relatively remote location like Esrange has to offer—especially critical given the facility’s plans to test Europe’s first reusable rocket by the end of 2022.

Beyond its natural attributes, the area around Kiruna already has an infrastructural head start when it comes to space travel. The Swedes have used the site for a variety of space research projects over the years, and the country’s top scientific minds are already familiar with the area thanks to the Swedish Institute of Space Physics. The space engineering Ph.D. program at Lulea University of Technology and a specialized Space High School program in Kirun also attract the next generation of (literal) rocket scientists to the area. That’s on top of the hotel, church, and visitor’s center, all of which can expect to see more activity in the near future.

Outside the Esrange Space Center offices.

There should be no shortage of interested parties on hand as Esrange ramps up its efforts to become Europe’s preeminent launching pad for orbital rockets. As The New York Times reports, German rocketry startups (one of which, ISAR Aerospace Technologies, secured $100 million in funding from an ex-SpaceX VP) are already on site testing out engines, and more are sure to follow once the launchpads that will carry orbital rockets beyond Earth’s atmosphere are completed.

Though the effort is certainly ambitious (and has elicited occasional concerns from locals who appreciate the area’s vast wilderness), the Swedish Space Corporation believes Esrange is vital not just for the Scandinavian country’s ambitions but for the continent as a whole.

“Europe really needs to build infrastructure to get to space,” Swedish Space Corporation senior VP Stefan Gustafsson told the Times. “We can provide a proper space base.” Whether or not that ends up being the case should be clearer by the end of 2022. But if Sweden’s plan to launch commercial satellites into orbit ends up paying dividends, don’t be surprised if spaceports are the next major infrastructural frontier.

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