Europe's Ariane rocket sizes up for competition

 
Ariane 6 concept Industry will shortly give its assessment of the design and organisation of Ariane 6 production

A report from industry on the design of Europe's future rocket, Ariane 6, will be delivered in the next few weeks.

Astrium, which leads the manufacturing team on the current Ariane 5, will detail an architecture for a new vehicle it believes can be made at substantially lower cost.

This is seen as essential in the face of growing competition from the US.

It will require not only using new production methods, but probably also a big reorganisation of industry itself.

"For me, the key question for Ariane 6 is not really the design - how many boosters and what will be the size of each and every booster; and of course, we work on that. No, the key question is how to organise relationships between industry and agencies, in order to deliver a launcher to a given target price," observed Alain Charmeau, the CEO of Astrium Space Transportation. This price is about 70-75m euros.

"And to be clear, we should not be naive. If we need to reduce the cost by 40% or 50%, it means reducing the number of people. About 80% to 90% of the cost of a launcher is hourly rates - it's manpower. So if you want to reduce the costs, you have to deliver the launcher with fewer people."

Mr Charmeau was describing the future landscape for Ariane here at the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget.

Raised game

The current Ariane 5 dominates the global commercial launch market for large satellites.

More than half of the big platforms sent up to provide the world with TV, phone and internet services are lofted by the European vehicle.

Alain Charmeau: We need to become 'more efficient for the next generation'

But change is sweeping through the industry in the form of SpaceX of California, which has been seeded by the US space agency Nasa to provide low-cost launch services in America. And the company is now taking its technology international, offering launch services at prices that undercut the established competition. Although SpaceX's Falcon rocket has yet to launch a large commercial telecoms platform, the existing players know they have to react or risk losing many of their traditional customers.

"Yes, we are moving because of the competition, just as in the car industry or the aircraft industry," said Mr Charmeau. "We are entering into a more and more competitive world in terms of launchers."

Ariane 6 is regarded as Europe's ultimate response.

Mr Charmeau says Astrium is zeroing in on the final concept, having eliminated a number of ideas. The broad outline, however, seems clear.

Ariane 5 The Ariane 5 will get a more powerful upper-stage engine to increase its satellite carrying capacity

The 6 will comprise lower-stages powered by solid-fuel motors, and an upper-stage that uses cryogenic liquids (hydrogen and oxygen). Composites will be chosen for lightness and strength, and all systems must use substantially fewer parts. Complexity needs to be reduced.

'Fatter' satellites

This is certainly the case for the design of the upper-stage, known as Vinci, which is already far advanced and will be introduced as soon as possible to the existing Ariane 5 in a "mid-life evolution" of the rocket that will give it greater performance.

Vinci will help raise the 5's lifting capacity to more than 11 tonnes, enabling the rocket to more easily mix and match the different classes of satellites it carries to orbit.

The usual practice is for Ariane to launch two satellites at once - one large platform, up to 6.5 tonnes - and in future, a second one approaching five tonnes.

The hope is this will maintain the European rocket's attractiveness, especially if - as many suspect - new electric satellites become popular.

These spacecraft use ion thrusters to finalise their orbits once they come off the top of the rocket. These propulsion systems are more efficient (using less fuel) than their chemical forebears, saving large amounts of mass that can be given over to bigger and more powerful telecommunications payloads.

The expectation is that the platforms could be "fatter" as a result. They may have larger solar arrays to satisfy their increased power needs, and perhaps even more extensive cooling systems. In any case, it seems likely that telecoms antennas may get bigger as well.

Artist's impression of the 702SP Boeing satellite Boeing has started making all electric satellites which could usher in a new era

All this is forcing the rocket companies to address not just their mass constraints but also the payload volumes they can offer satellite customers.

Quality first

"In the past, satellite manufacturers very much organised their payloads around the [chemical propulsion] tanks," said Eric Beranger, who heads up Astrium's satellite production division. "If you don't have the tanks anymore, you can have very different approaches on how you fit your payloads. It will open up opportunities because it will give you a new freedom in the way you architect your satellite."

Ariane 5 will likely meet this challenge by putting a ring under its fairing - the clam-shell covering that protects the satellite during the early part of the ascent through the atmosphere. This will increase the height of the fairing, and the available space inside, by 1-2m.

International Launch Services (ILS) is presently Ariane's chief rival. The US-Russian operation sells the Proton vehicle. The Baikonur-based rocket launches most of the big telecoms satellites that Ariane does not. Proton, too, is undergoing a series of improvements, including a widening of its fairing, says ILS president Phil Slack.

"Today's version of Proton currently being flown has a lift capability of 6.15 tonnes to geostationary transfer orbit, and there is what we call a 'phase four' development that will lift this capacity by another 200kg, and it will fly in 2014. Significant investment is also being made in a 5m diameter fairing which will support customers' desire for larger spacecraft due to larger antennas/reflectors. We've been competitive and we plan to stay competitive into the future," he told BBC News.

Proton The Proton, too, is undergoing improvements

As is always the case in rocketry, the most important prerequisite is reliability. A launch failure is extremely damaging to market confidence.

The Ariane 5 has now completed 55 consecutive successful missions, but Proton is having to fight back from a number of mishaps that have prompted a whole-scale review of the production process at manufacturer Khrunichev.

"We now have mandatory photographing and videotaping of critical operations on the production line," Khrunichev director general Alexander Seliverstov told BBC News.

"All products that come from the Khrunichev assembly line have to come with a level of quality to accomplish mission success. We understand very clearly that if we want to keep market share, if want to keep any customers, quality has to be number one."

 
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  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 41.

    The future is with commerce, not space agencies. The British government demonstrated how good our scientists and engineers are in this field and how utterly useless is governmental decision-making. Can British industry pick up and run with the opportunities open to us, as Branson is doing? Or will this go the way of the car industry? We will see.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 40.

    #39 Because at 10 launches a year even a rockets emissions aren't significant. Plus liquid O2/H2 engines only produce water.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 39.

    What's the carbon footprint on those things?

    Every other form of transportation gets asked about it, why not rocketry?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 38.

    #33 Being able to shift the counterweight would probably be a necessity, although the ratios of counterweight vs lifted mass would make it a lot easier to build and operate with water or similar being pumped for small shifts, and maybe move the entire counterweight structure for larger ones

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 37.

    29 Drunken Hobo : I wonder if we'll build a space elevator on the Moon before we build one on Earth.

    More likely Mars. Areosynchronous orbit is much lower than selenosynchronous and the surface gravity is only twice lunar. Certainly much easier than one on Earth. There are even a couple of anchor asteroids conveniently placed, though dodging Phobos if it wasn't used would be interesting...

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 36.

    Why not use nuclear power and then fire the waste into the sun?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 35.

    LUFC_FR
    Branson's space tourism will definitely not make rockets obsolete. They only skim the lower atmosphere and carry relatively small loads. They simply don't have enough power to get a payload into an orbit that a satellite needs.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 34.

    Branson's Virgin team will make launching satellites from the ground obsolete in a few years.
    And with increasing miniturisation of technolgy, large satellites will go the way of the dodo.
    Cleaning away the orbiting scrapyard up there should be the priority, who do you think's going to get that bill?

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 33.

    30 Arcid - That'd make more sense. Hopefully it'd be stable enough to allow a decent-sized counterweight. I imagine it shifts about a lot as the Moon's orbit is somewhat eccentric.

    31 CPslashM - I may be wrong, but I've heard that to build a space elevator with current materials would weigh more than Earth. Although that may have been for a rigid tower.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 32.

    Britain is not being left behind. A new solid fuel rocket is being assembled and due for testing. The problem so far has been getting a long enough stick.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 31.

    You could probably build a space elevator with carbon fibre - it would have to be very thick at geostationary orbit (maximum load) then taper up and down to the counterweight and the Earth's surface respectively.

    Talking of Skylon, would the engines survive a bird strike?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 30.

    Looking at the idea on wikipedia it looks like it wouldn't be that far, as you can use the earths gravity to cheat and have the center of mass at the L1 point. Another idea is using one on the opposite side of the moon as a launch site to put cargo into space with a good relative velocity, and also a great degree of control over the direction of launch

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 29.

    25 Arcid & 27 Xilman - I wonder if we'll build a space elevator on the Moon before we build one on Earth. Less gravity to worry about, no atmosphere and far fewer satellites to dodge.
    Though come to think of it, geostationary orbit on the Moon is probably the distance to Earth... so maybe not such a good idea.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 28.

    #18 Tim Smalls
    Robert Lucien #17
    "You will NEVER get permission to launch a rocket from Earth based on GCNR technology."

    Why? GCNR rockets using H2 reaction mass should be completely clean with absolutely no emission of radioactive matter through the exhaust at all. - Cleaner and safer than any chemical rocket.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 27.

    23: "You'd have to be very careful that no other orbits crossed the path of the sturcture below."

    There are several work-rounds. Large and/or valuable objects can be avoided by flexing the cable out of the way. Smaller bits can be obliterated by a number of techniques, including machine guns. Tiny stuff could be destroyed with a sacrificial shield of several layers of thin material.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 26.

    14 gubbs

    ESA is not part of the EU.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 25.

    #23 One of the ideas I've heard for protecting an orbital cable would be to have small lasers at regular "stations" along it. Those would in theory be able to impart enough energy to most debris to deflect it away from the cable, and to ideally deorbit it.

    Detecting small debris is a big issue for that, so something ablative like a whipple shield would be a good bet

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 24.

    @14 Gubbs

    Sorry but as we are a huge contributor to the ESA pulling out of the car crash that is the EU will make no difference to our space aspirations.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 23.

    22 Meff - Good point, I've never heard of that problem before. You'd have to be very careful that no other orbits crossed the path of the sturcture below.
    If the ISS were to smash into the slow-moving structure leading up to the anchoring satellite, they'd both be absolutely obliterated. The closing speed would be about 25,000km/h, even a tiny bit of debris would do serious damage at that speed.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 22.

    I was joking, but I am aware of a space elevator. I guess having a material strong enough just to support itself, let alone a payload, is a huge problem.

    Thinking about it, wouldn't the anchoring satellite have to be geostationary and so pose a risk to other orbiting objects?

 

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