Airbus initiates smallsat launcher project

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The competition heats up: Airbus has begun a project to develop a smallsat commercial launch rocket, competitive with Rocket Lab’s Electron and Virgin Galactic’s LaunchOne, aimed at the cubesat and nanosat satellite market.

The source for the story was unnamed, and also gave few details, so it is hard to know how real this is. What I gather however is that we might be seeing the beginnings of a long term split in the launch market, with one set of big rockets designed to launch human-related payloads, including humans, and a second set of small rockets focused on launching unmanned satellites.


  • Alex

    Mr. Zimmerman, it is correct what you say about future launch market split, beside one point. I am not sure about future of mamned missions.

  • Alex

    Why not? A good bottle of wine in 20 years? [Another question: It is possible to introduce a correction button in your blog to establish possibility to correct for errors?]

  • Dick Eagleson

    Airbus is rapidly becoming the “me too” leader in aerospace. After ULA announced its Vulcan “just-save-the-engines” 1st stage partial reusability architecture, Airbus trotted out a similar concept that used little deployable wings to bring back the engine module as a kind of drone for a fairly-far-in-the-future version of Ariane 6. Now they’re chasing after smallsats. I’m sure by the time Airbus has anything flying, it will be uncompetitve on price and probably on reusability with the second-generation VG, Firefly, Rocket Lab and Vector Space Systems stuff.

  • Edward

    I don’t think that we need 20 years, Alex. Bigelow Aerospace is working on modules that can be used as space stations.

    There are many companies and countries that want to study the effects of zero g on items but are not so willing to go along with NASA’s rules for the ISS. For one, NASA requires that study results become public domain in only five years. If Bigelow is smart, he won’t require that results be made public, so that companies are not rushed into development of their new product, or that competition takes longer to catch up.

    Many countries want their own manned space programs, but can’t afford to develop their own rockets, spacecraft, and space stations. SpaceX, Boeing and ULA, and Bigelow can offer them an inexpensive alternative, generating huge amounts of business for themselves, and more opportunity for space development from innovations from the countries that start their own “poor country’s” Space program.

    Inside of a decade, there could be a booming manned space business.

  • Alex

    Hello Edward, there are two forces inside my mind in respect to manned spaceflight, which fight against each other, the rational and the romantic one. The romantic force is powered by my child-hood/youth S/F-impressions and vision of manned space exploration and settlement. No explanation further needed.
    The rational part says, there is no need or objectives for man in life-hazardous space, which would justify the overwhelming risk and expensive. Let us put the money into scientific, robotic missions in order to propel knowledge about exoplanets or our solar system, or let us even launch small laser driven interstellar probes to Alpha Centauri. Let us relive at first dessert place at Earth, before we even think about to settle at Mars, which is very cold place set in a radiated vacuum.
    I would like to make a proposal for a view, which we both may share: The government/tax-payer/NASA should support only unmanned basic research activities as space astronomy and interplanetary probes. The manned space flight (space tourism and so forth) shall be alone subject of commercial activities, which does not rely on tax-payers money. What do you think?

  • Wodun

    Alex, why not humans and robots?

    From Earth to anywhere, there is a long time delay. The cognitive horizon dictates human operators be relatively close to their robots. We can get more science done with human control in real time. And who knows, maybe nongovernment humans could also engage in activities from the same facilities?

  • Alex

    Wodun, at the end we need autonomous robots, which decide itself, what to do in situ based on a set of programmed basic instructions and guidelines. Meanwhile, I am supporting the idea of teleroboting from orbit in case of Mars and Venus. Such orbital station would be a logical step beyond Earth orbiting station as ISS and may be derived from Bigelow and ISS technology.

  • Edward

    Good view of NASA’s mission. I disagree on the non-need for humans, though.

    If we could do the experiments that we do on ISS with robots, we would have done so a long time ago. Instead, we have a laboratory in which the flexibility of humans are used to perform a wide variety of experiments. As with Skylab and MIR, we are still learning a lot about humans living and working in space, as well as the design and operation of the space station.

    Although the current cost of each experiment performed, so far, is in the tens of millions of dollars, this is still less expensive than it would have been to put each experiment in orbit on a robotic satellite, plus it allows for the astronaut to make repairs to errant experiments and to adapt in real time to results obtained.

    As I suggested, there is a lot of interest in being able to do experiments in which the results remain private property, so I expect that space tourism will be a minor space business, despite the popular press it has been getting. Very little is said of the more than 1,500 experiments that were performed through the end of 2013 (and many more since, being fully operational for half a decade, now), but much is publicized about the tourism, which has yet to really start.

    With Bigelow space laboratories being around three orders of magnitude less expensive to put into space than the ISS, my expectation is that, on average, an experiment performed on one of those labs would cost around a million dollars, or maybe less, including launch and ground development time for the experiment. The information that we receive from many space experiments have greater value than that.

    I think that NASA should continue the bold manned exploration of the solar system, but I have a suspicion that commercial companies will beat any government to Mars, and they may even get humans back to the moon before China does. Governments think big and expensive, and then have difficulty funding the project. Companies think thrifty and find the necessary capital.

    The science fiction visions that we had did not come to pass when governments were controlling access to space, but we have seen in the past few years that commercial companies have raised a challenge for low-cost access, as well as showing the need for micro-gravity experiments. What we really needed was the low-cost access in order to realize something like the science fiction dreams. Fortunately, NASA finally provided a program to develop this access rather than monopolize the access through the expensive Space Shuttle. We now have many people thinking up many ideas for things to do and make in and for space.

    As for the autonomous robots, these are under development. Mars rovers are slow when humans have to guide them remotely from Earth, but software that helps it to determine its own paths has already sped up Curiosity’s exploration of Mars. Earthbound engineers tell it where to go, today, and it figures up how to get there.

    NASA’s JPL is the world leader in unmanned planetary exploration. They do it well, and they do it as often as funding allows. I want them to keep it up. Space telescopes have done a remarkable job in exploring the universe as well as our stellar neighborhood. I want them to keep it up, too. Commercial space is performing rather well where there is near-term payoff, and government is performing well with the more fundamental space sciences.

  • Alex

    Hello rocket friends,

    not belonging direct to above defined topic, I would like to present that pearl of video documentation from 1954, which
    I just detected. Its exhibits early Atlas missile design steps, which were new to me. For example, that earlier version used 5 engine (instead 3, which were used at the operational missile), at wich 4 engine were used for boost phase. Furthermore, first Atlas development versions used ethanol as fuel and not later applied JP-4 fuel. Be aware also of the much different warhead design.

  • Alex

    Hello Edward, thank you for giving these detailed analysis. However, it seems to me that NASA is not at the fore-front of advanced robotics. If I have to name an institution for the prize, I would select Boston Dynamics for example. It seems to me also that NASA has loosed its leading role in space transportation technology to a company as SpaceX, if we think about reusability of launchers. BTW, is JPL not an institution on its own rights and not very fixedly connected to NASA?

  • Edward

    Nice video from the 1950s. Rockets are still similar, and the fundamentals and basics remain the same, although I don’t know of any modern ones that are 1-1/2 stage rockets as that first Atlas. Also, there may be less ground-based guidance, and orbital rockets aim for orbit, rather than launch sites, navies, military bases, or cities.

    Different robots are made for different purposes. Boston Dynamics seems to be ahead with robots with legs and feet, but NASA still uses wheels to travel Mars. Spacecraft are also considered robots. Although several other countries have successfully placed robotic spacecraft in orbit or on the surface of the Moon and Mars, NASA still has more of them and generally more complex ones.

    NASA has not been in the business of rocket launches since the last Shuttle launch. In the US, ULA has been the leader, with Orbital ATK and SpaceX closing in. Around the world, other governments have remained or entered the launch business, including the very popular and world-leading Arianespace with about 50% of the world’s commercial launch market, Russia, and China. India is relatively new, and they are doing surprisingly well.

    JPL *is* a NASA facility, but it is operated by Cal Tech. This is a common misunderstanding, and I have corrected several people on this detail. A few years back, there was a call for the contract for its operation to be put up for bid, but I thought that would be a terrible idea, as Cal Tech does not cost too much, and their leadership has produced a large number of extremely successful planetary exploration missions. Please notice that the URL is part of NASAdotGOV, not part of CALTECHdotEDU.

  • Wayne

    Great “rocket-science” stuff!
    I’m just a civilian-amateur, but I agree JPL is top-notch with the whole “automated, robot-esque-spacecraft to other Worlds,” adventure.

    JPL is one of our “National Laboratory’s,” so not directly comparable to a SpaceX. (apple’s v. orange’s, situation)

    Highly recommend–
    “Theodore von Kármán and the Creation of JPL”

    Lots of good info & vintage photo’s

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