ESA firms up space station partnership with Voyager Space

The European Space Agency (ESA) and the American company Voyager Space last week signed an agreement making Voyager’s Starlab space station Europe’s main space station destination, replacing ISS.

Starlab will fulfill that role, at least partially, in the future for the space agencies of individual ESA member states. It’s expected to launch as soon as 2028, with operations set to start in 2029. This will include access for astronaut missions and to conduct research as well as providing opportunities for commercial business development. Starlab is also set to provide a complete “end-to-end” system in low-Earth orbit to which European crews and cargo will journey.

This European deal became more likely when Airbus joined the partnership of Voyager and Lockheed Martin in January 2023. It is also probably why Northrop Grumman in October 2023 abandoned its own space station project and joined this one instead. ESA is a big customer, most likely to guarantee the most profits.

What makes this deal different than ISS is that the station will not be owned by this large government customer. The companies building Starlab — led by Voyager — will be free to sell its services to anyone who wishes to use it. This deal also means that NASA and ESA will be going separate ways after ISS, no longer partnering on a station.

Voyager Space partners with Airbus to build its Starlab space station

Voyager Space, one of the three companies with a contract from NASA to develop a commercial private space station, has now signed a partnership agreement with the European aerospace company Airbus to work together to build its Starlab space station.

The companies announced Aug. 2 the creation of a joint venture, also called Starlab, that will be responsible for the development and operation of the station. The joint venture builds upon an agreement announced in January where Voyager selected Airbus to provide technical support for the proposed station.

“This transatlantic venture with footprints on both sides of the ocean aligns the interests of both ourselves and Voyager and our respective space agencies,” said Jean-Marc Nasr, head of space systems at Airbus, in a statement. “Together our teams are focused on creating an unmatched space destination both technologically and as a business operation.”

Though no specifics of the deal were released, Voyager will continue to retain 51% control. It appears that Voyager’s goal with this deal is to get its foot in the door of Europe. With ESA no longer considering doing any work on the space stations of either China or Russia, it needs a place to go after ISS is retired. By signing up Airbus as a partner Voyager makes Starlab the most likely go-to station for these European companies and governments.

Isn’t private enterprise and freedom wonderful? Without even trying Europe is going to get a space station of its own, and it will do it by hiring this private consortium of American and European companies.

Hat tip to Jay, BtB’s stringer.

Voyager signs deal with Airbus to build its private space station

Voyager Space, the division of Nanoracks that has a contract with NASA for building one of four private space stations, has now signed a deal with Airbus, which will provide Voyager additional technical support.

It appears this deal is going to give Europe access to at least one of those American stations, once ISS is gone.

“We are proud to partner with Airbus Defence and Space to bring Starlab to life. Our vision is to create the most accessible infrastructure in space to serve the scientific community,” said Dylan Taylor, Chairman and CEO of Voyager Space. “This partnership is unique in that it engages international partners in the Commercial Destinations Free-Flyer program. Working with Airbus we will expand Starlab’s ecosystem to serve the European Space Agency (ESA) and its member state space agencies to continue their microgravity research in LEO.”

Unlike ISS, where profit was not a motive, Voyager has to make money on its Starlab space station. If Europe wants in, it needs to provide Voyager something, and this deal is apparently part of that contribution. I also suspect that high level negotiations occurred within NASA, ESA, and Voyager to make this deal happen so that Europe would continue to have access to at least one of the American stations.

Ariane 6 inaugural launch date appears to be delayed again

It appears that officials at the European Space Agency (ESA) have begun preparing the public for a further delay in the first launch of its new Ariane 6 rocket, from the second quarter of 2022, as announced in October 2020, to the third quarter of 2022, at the earliest.

Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency, at the Paris Air Forum [described the creation of] “a small group” … to make an independent assessment of the schedule for the final development phase of the Ariane 6 rocket. The goal of this task force will be to ensure that Europe does everything it needs to do launch on time.

…In referring to an “on time” launch, Aschbacher said he meant next year, before the European Space Agency’s Ministerial Council meeting that is typically held in October or November. This is a high-level meeting where representatives from each member nation of the space agency gather to set policy. The European Space Agency’s budget is provided, in varying amounts, by member nations. “This is a must,” Aschbacher said of launching before the 2022 meeting, “because we need good news, and good success, for our politicians to see that Europe performs, that Europe delivers, and therefore it is worth investing in space in the ministerial conference.”

It appears from these statements that the development of Ariane 6 is now faced with delays that might make a launch by the third quarter in ’22 difficult, and this new independent committee is being put together to try to forestall that possibility. What makes this even more significant for Ariane 6 is that it continues to have trouble winning contracts from the nations within ESA, as it remains far more expensive that SpaceX’s Falcon 9. If that first launch is delayed past that important fall ’22 high-level meeting, those politicians at that meeting might decide to consider serious new alternatives to it, or even more drastically decide to replace it entirely.

Arianespace’s Vega rocket fails again at launch

Early today Arianespace’s Vega rocket failed, for the second time in its last three launches, to put two satellites into orbit.

A liquid-fueled upper stage — known as the Attitude and Vernier Upper Module, or AVUM — was supposed to fire four times Monday night to place the Spanish SEOSAT-Ingenio Earth observation satellite and the Taranis research spacecraft from the French space agency CNES into slightly different orbits at an altitude of roughly 420 miles (676 kilometers) .

But something went wrong just after the first ignition of the AVUM fourth stage. “After the first nominal ignition of the last stage engine, an anomaly has occurred, which caused a trajectory deviation entailing the loss of the mission,” said Avio, the Vega rocket’s Italian prime contractor, in a statement. “Data analyses are in progress to determine the causes.”

This is bad new for Europe’s space effort. It will likely but a crimp in the development of their two next generation rockets, the Ariane 6 and the Vega-C, as the upper stage that failed involves all the contractors building those rockets, Airbus and Avio.

The failure of this particular engine also badly damages the future of the two Ukrainian contractors, Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash, who built it. They have lost all business with Russia because of the war between those two countries, and now have this failure to darken their resume with the rest of the world.

ArianeGroup completes testing of all three Ariane 6 rocket engines

Capitalism in space: ArianeGroup, the joint private partnership that is building Europe’s new Ariane 6 rocket, has successfully completed all testing of the three different engines the rocket will use.

The first stage has a core engine with side strap-on solid rocket motors, while the upper stage has a different engine entirely. All three have now passed qualification tests, allowing full design and construction of the rocket itself.

Airbus to cut 2,362 jobs, citing weak space market

Capitalism in space: Airbus announced this week that it plans to cut 2,362 jobs, citing as the reason “lower performance in space” as well as postponed defense contracts.

This quote from the article is revealing:

Airbus Defence and Space is the third satellite manufacturer to announce layoffs in the past 12 months. Thales Alenia Space said in September it was cutting around 6% of its workforce, following Maxar’s February 2019 announcement that it would dismiss roughly 3% of its employees.

The article however also indicates that 2019 saw a big recovery in geosynchronous satellite orders.

Though not stated, I suspect that part of Airbus’s problem is related to Ariane 6, which it is building in a joint partnership with Safran dubbed ArianeGroup. While designed to be less expensive to build, the rocket is not reusable, and its launch price is simply not competitive. Thus, getting contract orders has been very difficult.

Note also that ArianeGroup announced in November 2018 that it going to cut 2,300 jobs by 2022. I wonder if some of these cuts overlap the newly announced cuts.

Either way, these trims might be a good thing as Airbus and ArianeGroup work to cut their costs. Or they could be a bad thing, indicating that both are having trouble making sales. Only time will tell.

Airbus gets ESA as customer for its ISS commercial platform

Capitalism in space: Airbus has signed up the European Space Agency (ESA) to use its as-yet unlaunched ISS Bartolomeo module as an experimental platform.

The Bartolomeo platform – named after Christopher Columbus’ younger brother – is currently in the final stage of launch preparation at Airbus in Bremen and is scheduled for launch to the ISS in March 2020. Bartolomeo is developed on a commercial basis by Airbus using its own investment funds and will be operated in cooperation with ESA.

The platform can accommodate up to 12 different experiment modules, supplying them with power and providing data transmission to Earth. Bartolomeo is suitable for many different experiments. Due to the unique position of the platform with a direct view of Earth from 400 kilometres, Earth observation including trace gas measurements or CO2 monitoring of the atmosphere are possible, with data useful for climate protection or for use by private data service providers.

This is the European effort to duplicate the slow commercialization of ISS that is also taking place in the U.S., with more and more of the payloads and operating platforms on the station being developed, owned, and operated not by NASA but by private companies.

Airbus to deliver the first Orion service module to NASA this week

My heart be still! Airbus will deliver this week the first Orion service module to NASA.

Airbus will deliver the first European Service Module (ESM) for NASA’s Orion spacecraft from its aerospace site in Bremen, Germany on 5 November 2018. An Antonov cargo aircraft will fly the ESM to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA. This is the result of four years of development and construction, and represents the achievement of a key milestone in the project. ESA selected Airbus as the prime contractor for the development and manufacturing of the first ESM in November 2014.

Four years to simply build a single manned capsule’s service module. At this pace we might be able to colonize Mars and the Moon in about 200 years, maybe!

Note however that NASA only has funding to build 1.5 of these European service modules. It is possible that Congress has allocated additional funds, but if so, I missed it.

A new Moon Race contest established

Led by Airbus, a number of private space companies and government agencies have established a new space contest dubbed “The Moon Race.”

The Moon Race competition is a global initiative founded by Airbus and international partners, aiming to boost the movement around Moon exploration and enable the demonstration of key technologies required for its sustainable exploration.

The Moon Race targets startups and SME’s worldwide and has the ambition to bring the winning teams to the lunar surface and provide solutions for the uprising lunar economy.

The competition is managed by “The Moon Race NPO gGmbH”, a not-for-profit organization based in Germany, whose goals are to manage The Moon Race competition and bring together the international space – and non-space – communities into one coordinated international initiative.

The partners listed so far are Airbus, Blue Origin, Vinci (an Italian space company), the European Space Agency, and Mexico’s space agency. Though their webpage is somewhat vague, it appears they are looking for new companies to join a program to compete for monetary prizes handed out year by year though 2023.

Airbus to slash more than a 1,000 jobs to cut costs

The competition heats up: In a continuing re-organization to cut costs, Airbus yesterday announced plans to slash 1,164 jobs.

The initiative is part of [Airbus Chief Executive Tom] Enders’s four-year campaign to reshape the business in the wake of the failed attempt in 2012 to merge with BAE Systems PLC, Europe’s largest arms maker. After the deal with BAE faltered on German government opposition, he won shareholder backing for a new structure that reduced French, German and Spanish government involvement in company decision-making. The old structure was a legacy of the founding of the company in 2000 through the combination of European aerospace and defense assets.

Airbus in 2013 moved to merge its defense and space assets and shed some operations not central to its aerospace business.

This approach matches very well with the company’s joint partnership with Safran and their hard-nosed insistence that they own and control Ariane 6. They are pushing to get the government bureaucracy out of their business so that they can work more efficiently and make more money.

Airbus signs first customer for its ISS external platform

The competition heats up: Airbus has signed its first commercial customer for an external platform the company will be installing on ISS by the end of 2018.

Neumann Space is an Australian company developing a solar-electric thruster that uses metallic fuels rather than a gas like xenon. The company believes that the thruster will have a higher performance versus conventional electric thrusters and be able to use a wide range of metals as fuels. The company will install an experimental payload on Bartolomeo, a platform that Airbus plans to mount on the exterior of the Columbus module for experiments that require access to the space environment. Paddy Neumann, chief scientist and founder of Neumann Space, said the power requirements for the thruster made flying it on a cubesat or other small satellite impractical. “When we heard about the Bartolomeo platform, we leapt at the chance,” he said in a ceremony at Airbus’ booth at the IAC exhibit hall where the companies signed the agreement.

…Airbus announced the Bartolomeo platform in June as part of what the company called an “end-to-end service” to provide efficient commercial access to the ISS. The company hopes to have the platform installed on the Columbus module by the end of 2018, but officials at the conference said they were still working out launch arrangements and were in discussions with NASA for the spacewalk that will be needed to install the platform outside Columbus.

What is happening here with Airbus and ESA is the same thing that is happening at NASA: a transition from ownership by government to ownership by competing private companies. The positive ramifications of this transition cannot be measured, and have an almost limitless potential for accelerating the exploration of space.

Airbus imposes management cuts to save money

The competition heats up: In restructuring to cut costs and reduce its bureaucracy Airbus has decided to make significant management cuts and merge different divisions.

More here, including this revealing quote:

The move is the latest in [Airbus Chief Executive Tom] Enders’ four-year campaign to overhaul the company in the wake of the 2012 failed merger attempt with Europe’s largest arms maker BAE Systems PLC. “For me this is the logical conclusion of the journey we started in 2012,” Mr. Enders said.

After the deal faltered on German government opposition, he won shareholder backing for a new structure that reduced French, German and Spanish government involvement in company decision making, a legacy of the founding of the company in 2000 through the combination of European aerospace and defense assets.

The first link above also adds this:

[Airbus] changed its name from EADS and overhauled its governance in 2013-14, limiting the influence of French and German minority state shareholdings and granting more independence to management under German-born Chief Executive Tom Enders. But it remained saddled with separate bureaucracies and confusion over the brand, with the planemaking unit keeping the core “Airbus” identity and no fewer than five CEOs spread across the parent company, three units and one geographical division.

In other words, this restructuring is intended to remove any further government influence on the management of the company. Rather than provide pork for politicians, Airbus will now focus on maximizing its profits. The thinking here also corresponds with how the company organized its joint partnership with Safran and took over design and construction of Ariane 6 from the bureaucracy of the European Space Agency. Expect similar management cuts and even the possible elimination entirely of ESA’s Arianespace division in the coming years.

European commission approves Airbus-Safran buy of Arianespace

The competition heats up: The bureaucrats in the European Union have given their approval to the purchase by Airbus-Safran Launchers of Arianespace, thereby clearing the way for the privatization of that ESA entity and the construction, under Airbus-Safran control, of Ariane 6.

Following an in-depth review, the European Commission has approved under the EU Merger Regulation, the acquisition of Arianespace by Airbus Safran Launchers (ASL), a joint venture between Airbus and Safran. This approval is subject to conditions. Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “A well-functioning satellite and launcher industry is important to guarantee that European companies and institutions can gain access to space at competitive terms. The commitments offered by ASL ensure that after its takeover of Arianespace, all players in the industry will continue to have incentives to innovate.”

The Commission had concerns that the transaction would give rise to flows of sensitive information between Airbus and Arianespace to the detriment of competing satellite manufacturers and launch service providers. The Commission’s approval is conditional on the implementation of the commitments offered by the companies to address these concerns.

I must say that, in reading this story, I understood far better why the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Though this particular deal is certainly different and involves many important government issues, if every private business deal is subject to the numbing concerns of this commission, I myself would run screaming from them as fast as I could.

Airbus begins assembly Orion service module

My heart be still! Airbus has announced that it is beginning assembly of the first Orion capsule service module.

Considering the cost to build about three Orion flight capsules, about $25 billion, one would think that would be enough to also build the capsule’s service module, especially since this is not cutting edge technology, having already been done with Apollo.

Not however when you are dealing with pork-laden government operations, where the customer, the taxpayer, is a good mark that you can suck for as much money as possible without any bad consequences. Make it sound cool and they will buy it, hook, line, and sinker!

Airbus initiates smallsat launcher project

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.

Turning planes into trucks

The competition heats up: Airbus has patented a concept for having the cargo/passenger section of an airplane modular and removable.

Instead of a single hull, aeroplanes would essentially be built with a hole in their fuselage between the nose cone and the tail section, into which modular compartments could be fitted and removed. The compartments, which could take on the purpose of a passenger, luxury passenger or freight unit, would be transferred between the aircraft and airport via a docking module, which according to Airbus would (ideally) be integrated into airport terminal buildings.

For passenger planes this idea really doesn’t work. However, for cargo it is brilliant. Like trucks, it allows cargo to be loaded without using the expensive flight infrastructure.

Airbus patents design for a supersonic ramjet airplane

The competition heats up: Two Airbus engineers have gotten a patent for a supersonic jet that would use suborbital space engineering, including hydrogen-oxygen engines as well as a ramjet, to fly at 20 to 30 miles elevation.

On a typical flight, it would take off like a conventional plane using ordinary turbojet engines, but once in the air, an open door in the stern of the plane reveals a rocket motor. When this fires, it sends the aircraft into a near vertical trajectory, accelerating it to supersonic speeds.

As the airplane approaches Mach one, the turbojets shut down and retract into the fuselage. On completion of the acceleration phase the plane is now flying at anywhere from Mach 4 to Mach 4.5 at an altitude of 30,000 to 35,000 m (100,000 to 150,000 ft). The rocket motor shuts down and is again concealed as the aft door slides shut to reduce drag. A ramjet now kicks in and the aircraft cruises along its flight path and can cover a range of 9,000 km (5,600 mi) in three hours – the equivalent of Tokyo to Los Angeles or Paris to San Francisco. Meanwhile, the wing fuselage design dissipates the sonic shock wave over 110 to 175 km (68 to 109 mi) and angles it at 11 to 15 degrees so it doesn’t reach the ground. At the end of the journey, split flaps reduce speed and the turbojets take over for approach and landing.

As the article notes, it is unlikely this jet will ever be built, as patented. The patent however illustrates the growing interest by commercial operators of these radical aerospace designs. While this specific design might never fly, many aspects of it are going to start appearing in flying ships in the next few decades.

OneWeb awards major launch contracts

The competition heats up: OneWeb today announced it had raised a half billion dollars in investment capital, and has also awarded two major launch contracts, one to the Arianespace/Russian Soyuz partnership and the other to Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne.

The Soyuz gets 21 launches while LauncherOne gets 39. For Virgin Galactic this contract might save the company, as their effort to fly tourists on SpaceShipOne has badly stalled. The effort to build LauncherOne, however, seems to be gaining steam.

Airbus unveils its first stage re-useability concept

The competition heats up: Airbus unveiled today its prototype design to recover and reuse the engines and avionics of its Ariane rockets.

Herve Gilibert, technical director for Airbus’ Space Systems division, said the Adeline propulsion unit — engine and avionics — is where lies most of the value of the first stage. The Airbus team concluded that SpaceX’s design of returning the full stage to Earth could be simplified by separating the propulsion bay from the rest of the stage, protecting the motor on reentry and, using the winglets and turbofans, return horizontally to a conventional air strip. “We are using an aerodynamic shield so that the motor is not subjected to such high stress on reentry,” Gilibert said. “We need very little fuel for the turbofans and the performance penalty we pay for the Ariane 6 launcher is far less than the 30 percent or more performance penalty that SpaceX pays for the reusable Falcon 9 first stage.

Gee, for decades Arianespace and Boeing and Lockheed Martin and everyone else in the launch industry insisted it made no economic sense to try to recover and reuse the first stage of their rockets. Then SpaceX comes along and makes an effort to do so, without as yet even coming close, and suddenly everyone agrees it is economically essential to do it as well.

Isn’t competition wonderful?

Airbus attacked by French lawmaker for talking to SpaceX

The competition heats up: A French lawmaker lashed out at Airbus for daring to consider SpaceX as a possible launch option for a European communications satellite.

The senator, Alain Gournac, who is a veteran member of the French Parliamentary Space Group, said he had written French Economy and Industry Minister Emmanuel Macron to protest Airbus’ negotiations with Hawthorne, California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. for a late 2016 launch instead of contracting for a launch on a European Ariane 5 rocket. “The negotiations are all the more unacceptable given that, at the insistence of France, Europe has decided to adopt a policy of ‘European preference’ for its government launches,” Gournac said. “This is called playing against your team, and it smacks of a provocation. It’s an incredible situation that might lead customers to think we no longer have faith in Ariane 5 — and tomorrow, Ariane 6.”

Heh. SpaceX really is shaking up the launch industry, ain’t it?

A streamlined Arianespace to build Ariane 6?

The competition heats up: The merged Airbus/Safran rocket division has surprised the European Space Agency with a proposed new design for Ariane 6.

The Airbus-Safran proposal, if carried to its logical end, would mean a single company building Ariane vehicles, with fewer subcontractors and much less government oversight. It would likely mean the end of the CNES launcher division as industry takes more control of Ariane design and operations.

In other words, the contractors who build the rockets for ESA want more power over that construction. They want less government oversight, and more ownership of the rocket they build.

Sounds like what’s happening in the U.S., doesn’t it? Giving ownership to the rocket builders means they not only have more flexibility and thus can be more efficient, it makes it easier for them to innovate in both construction and sales.

The competition heats up: European aerospace companies Airbus and Safran have signed an agreement to merge their rocket divisions.

The competition heats up: European aerospace companies Airbus and Safran have signed an agreement to merge their rocket divisions.

The companies said the joint-venture would combine Airbus Group’s launch systems with Safran’s propulsion systems, but hinted at broader integration of public and private activities in an effort to duplicate the success of planemaker Airbus. Europe’s Ariane 5 space launcher dominates the market for large commercial satellites but faces growing concerns over its future due to competition from Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), run by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.

To respond to the threat, Airbus and Safran aim to lead a drive towards an integrated European launch firm drawing on the lessons of Airbus’s planemaking unit, which was spurred into turning itself from being a consortium into a single company by the merger of transatlantic rivals Boeing and McDonnell Douglas in 1997. [emphasis mine]

The article, like practically every other report about Europe’s space effort in the past two years, singles out the competitive threat being made to their market share by SpaceX. Increasingly, the price reductions being offered by Musk’s company combined with its repeated success in launching payloads into orbit is forcing Europe to cut its own costs and become more efficent, something they have not bothered to do in decades. As result access to space is about to get signigicantly cheaper.

Airbus has begun drop tests of its own suborbital spaceplane.

The competition heats up: Airbus has begun drop tests of a scale-model version of its own suborbital spaceplane.

The video at the link is very disappointing, as it cuts off almost immediately after the spaceplane is released, showing nothing of what happened and how it landed. Nonetheless, that Airbus is testing such technology means that they are considering competing with other suborbital companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR.

More details here, but they are scanty as well.

The cracks that have been found on the wings of the new Airbus A380 jumbo jet have now been traced to a company in the United Kingdom.

The cracks that have been found on the wings of the new Airbus A380 jumbo jet have now been traced to work done by a company in the United Kingdom.

A senior industry expert told The Times: ‘The issue is around the type of aluminum being used and the fitting which, as a result of the assembly, creates the crack’, with a source close to the problem adding, ‘It is a design and process engineering failure’.

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