Tag Archives: ESA

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.

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ISS’s international partners express interest in extending station’s life

While NASA has been considering the end of ISS, this week its international partners all expressed interest this week in extending its life beyond 2024.

During an Oct. 1 press conference at the 69th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here, representatives of three ISS partner agencies said they were open to extending the station’s operations to 2028 or 2030 in order to maximize the investment they’ve made in the facility as a platform for research and preparation for exploration activities beyond Earth orbit.

Jan Woerner, director general of the European Space Agency, said the issue could come up at the next triennial meeting of the ministers of ESA’s member nations, scheduled for late 2019. “At the ministerial meeting next year, the ministerial council, I will propose to go on with ISS as well as the lunar Gateway,” he said. “I believe that we will go on.”

At a separate briefing Oct. 2, Woerner emphasized the use of the station as a research platform and encouraged greater commercial activities there. “I believe we should use the ISS as long as feasible,” he said. “I always thought 2024 was the end, but now I learned it is 2028, and yesterday I learned it’s 2030. So, I will try to convince the ESA member states that ESA should be a partner in the future.” However, he noted that ESA could defer the decision on a post-2024 ISS extension until its following ministerial meeting in 2022.

Hiroshi Yamakawa, president of the Japanese space agency JAXA, also emphasized the importance of making the most of the station. “I’d like to make the most of the present ISS,” he said. “We have to maximize the output of the ISS. Whenever the deadline comes to the ISS, we would like to participate in the ISS and maximize output.” He added, though, that there was not a pressing need for Japan to decide on an ISS extension. “JAXA is requesting budgets annually, so I think in that sense JAXA is quite flexible.”

Dmitry Loskutov, head of international relations at the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, said Russia already expected an extension. “We anticipate the continued functioning until 2028 or 2030,” he said.

While I can see many benefits for extending ISS, leaving it as a wholly government-run operation will reduce its effectiveness while increasing its cost. I also suspect all these agencies are lobbying for funding. If they can get money for both ISS and Gateway, it will increase their footprint in space significantly.

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ArianeGroup successfully tests solid rocket booster

Capitalism in space: ArianeGroup today successfully tested the solid rocket booster that it will use on both its Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets in the 2020s.

The test success is good news for ArianeGroup, but this quote is actually more significant:

A compromise reached in May by European Space Agency members funding launch vehicle development will keep production of the P120C in Italy, allowing Avio to produce up to 35 boosters annually. A previous arrangement would have split production between Colleferro, Italy-based Avio and MT Aerospace of Augsburg, Germany.

The economies of scale provided by using the same booster for two rockets and concentrating production in one place are a key aspect of reducing the price for Ariane 6 missions by 40 to 50 percent compared to the Ariane 5 in use today.

Faced with stiff competition from SpaceX, the European Space Agency (ESA) gave ArianeGroup the power to structure operations more efficiently rather than cater to the pork desires of the agency’s many member nations.

Whether either Ariane 6 or Vega-C can compete with SpaceX’s reusuable rockets however remains doubtful. I expect that almost all of ArianeGroup’s customers in the next decade will be ESA member nations, required to buy its more expensive services.

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ArianeGroup chief admits they can’t compete

In a newspaper interview the chief of ArianeGroup, the private joint partnership of Europe’s main rocket contractors Airbus and Safran, can’t seem to understand why competition and lowering prices is a good thing.

Rather than give you one or two quotes, it is better that you click on the link and read the whole. thing. Essentially, the heart of the problem is that ArianeGroup is building their new Ariane 6 rocket as an expendable, not reuseable, and thus they it will not be able to compete in the launch market expected in the 2020s. They made this decision based on the political needs of the European Space Agency rather then financial needs of the launch market. As such, the launch market is abandoning them.

What is amazing is this CEO’s complete lack of understanding of these basic economic facts. It suggests some very deep rot in both ArianeGroup and much of Europe’s commercial aerospace sector. If the person in charge does not understand market forces, who else at the company will?

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Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter achieves operational orbit around Mars

After a year of aerobraking to lower its orbit, the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter has reached its planned orbit around Mars, and is about to begin studying the red planet’s atmosphere.

The primary goal is to take a detailed inventory of trace gases – those that make up less than 1% of the total volume of the planet’s atmosphere. In particular, the orbiter will seek evidence of methane and other gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological activity.

On Earth, living organisms release much of the planet’s methane. It is also the main component of naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas reservoirs, and a contribution is also provided by volcanic and hydrothermal activity. Methane on Mars is expected to have a rather short lifetime – around 400 years – because it is broken down by ultraviolet light from the Sun. It also reacts with other species in the atmosphere, and is subject to mixing and dispersal by winds. That means, if it is detected today, it was likely created or released from an ancient reservoir relatively recently. Previous possible detections of methane by ESA’s Mars Express and more recently by NASA’s Curiosity rover have been hinted at, but are still the subject of much debate.

The Trace Gas Orbiter can detect and analyse methane and other trace gases even in extremely low concentrations, with an improved accuracy of three orders of magnitude over previous measurements. It will also be able to help distinguish between the different possible origins. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted sentence is important. Pinpointing a region where methane is concentrated will allow scientists to better understand where it is coming from, and what is causing its release. It could be microbiological life, but it also could be from active volcanic processes. Finding either or both would be significant, to put it mildly.

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Ariane 5 launches two satellites

Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket today successfully placed two communications satellites in orbit, its first launch since January when the rocket placed two satellites in the wrong orbit.

Arianespace did launch a Soyuz rocket in the interim, but this launch signals the return to flight for Ariane 5.

The leaders in the 2018 launch standings:

10 China
7 SpaceX
4 Russia
3 Japan
3 ULA
3 Europe

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ESA successfully completes first parachute test for 2020 ExoMars mission

Early in March the European Space Agency successfully completed the first of a series of parachute tests for its 2020 ExoMars rover mission.

The focus of the latest test, conducted in sub-zero conditions in Kiruna, Sweden earlier this month, was the 35 m-diameter second main parachute. The test demonstrated the deployment and inflation of the parachute with its 112 lines connected to a drop test vehicle, via the deployment of a smaller 4.8 m-wide pilot chute.

This test only tested the parachutes deployment system. They still need to do this test at high altitudes to duplicate Mars’ conditions using high-altitude balloons.

When ExoMars reaches Mars, the parachute will act to slow the spacecraft down during descent. For the actual landing, they will be using systems designed and built by the Russians.

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ESA successfully tests an air-breathing ion thruster

Engineers from the European Space Agency (ESA) and an Italian company have successfully tested a prototype of an ion engine that would obtain its fuel from the thin atmosphere available in low Earth orbit, thus allowing it to operate practically indefinitely.

From the press release:

Replacing onboard propellant with atmospheric molecules would create a new class of satellites able to operate in very low orbits for long periods. Air-breathing electric thrusters could also be used at the outer fringes of atmospheres of other planets, drawing on the carbon dioxide of Mars, for instance. “This project began with a novel design to scoop up air molecules as propellant from the top of Earth’s atmosphere at around 200 km altitude with a typical speed of 7.8 km/s,” explains ESA’s Louis Walpot.

Think about it. You supply your planetary probe one or more of these engines, and once it reaches orbit around its target it has an unlimited fuel supply to do research just about forever. More important, such technology when further refined is going to enhance human exploration as well. For example, rather than use the atmosphere at it arrives, later designs could simply dive into the atmosphere to get the spaceship’s tank refilled. Such engines would make spacecraft free from the tether of Earth.

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Europe suddenly realizes that reusable rockets are possible and economical

The head of the European Space Agency (ESA) has admitted in his blog that the agency’s future rockets, Ariane 6 and Vega C, are not going to be competitive because they will not be reusable.

The promise to secure autonomous access to space and reduce the price by a factor of 2 proved sufficiently compelling to secure ESA member states’ agreement to finance the development. At that time, I succeeded in placing environmental concerns and the possible development of reusability among the high-level requirements:

  • Maintain and ensure European launcher competence with a long-term perspective, including possibility of reusability/fly-back.
  • Ensure possibility to deorbit upper stage directly

Due to time and cost pressure, however, these aspects did not make it onto the agenda for Ariane 6 and Vega C. Yet in the meantime, the world has moved on and today’s situation requires that we re-assess the situation and identify the possible consequences. In many discussions on the political level, the strategic goal of securing European autonomous access to space has not changed, however there is a growing sense that pressure from global competition is something that needs to be addressed. With Vega C, Ariane 62 and Ariane 64 approaching completion, it seems logical to complete these launchers in order to at least take that major step towards competitiveness. At the same time, it is essential that we now discuss future solutions, including disruptive ideas. Simply following the kind of approaches seen so far would be expensive and ultimately will fail to convince. Totally new ideas are needed and Europe must now prove it still possesses that traditional strength to surpass itself and break out beyond existing borders. In this sense, the process of discussing and deciding on a launcher system that eschews traditional solutions can send a powerful signal out into other areas as well. I therefore intend to invite innovative, really interested European players to come together to define possible ways forward. [emphasis mine]

Let me translate his bureaucratic wording: “We didn’t think reuseable rockets were practical, economical, or even possible. We took a safe route in designing Ariane 6 and Vega C. We screwed up, and now face a competitive market in which our rockets cannot compete. Thus, we need to move fast to copy the private sector, SpaceX and Blue Origin in particular, or face serious financial consequences.

Unless he forces some major cultural changes in ESA, however, I expect that by the time this government-run operation manages to duplicate the achievements of those two private companies, those companies will have marched on to even more innovative successes.

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ArianeGroup successfully completes first engine test of Ariane 6 rocket

ArianeGroup has successfully completed the first static fire engine test of the first stage main engine for its Ariane 6 rocket, scheduled for its first launch in 2020.

They have already been testing of the rocket’s upper stage engine now for several months. The article also notes that this main stage engine just tested is essentially a more efficient upgrade of an Ariane 5’s engine, which explains how they were able to develop it so quickly.

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Spanish company gets grant to develop smallsat rocket

The competition heats up: A Spanish company has gotten a $2.4 million grant from the European Commission to develop a smallsat rocket.

The EC Horizon 2020 funds bring the Elche, Spain-based startup to more than 9 million euro raised to build the Arion 1 sounding rocket and the Arion 2 orbital rocket. PLD Space co-founder and chief business officer Raúl Verdú said in a Jan. 10 statement that the company anticipates “the closing of an A2 investment round of 8 million Euro very soon.

PLD Space anticipates a first launch of Arion 1 in 2019, followed by the Arion 2 rocket in 2021. Both debut missions have slipped by one year from the company’s previous estimates. Around 70 percent of the technology needed for Arion 1 will overlap with Arion 2, according to PLD Space. The company hopes to make both rockets reusable using a mixture of parachutes and propulsive landing.

I haven’t done a detailed survey, but I think this brings the number of smallsat rockets under development right now to at least six: Rocket Lab, Japan’s SS-520, China’s Kaituozhe-2, Vector, Interorbital and PLD Space. Russia and India have also said they plan to develop a small rocket for this market, though no details yet exist.

I have been repeatedly told by other space experts that it makes no financial sense to launch smallsats on single small rockets. Yet, we now have numerous companies and investment dollars going to develop such rockets. I think that this only illustrates how little trust everyone should place in experts (even me!).

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Arianespace orders last ten Ariane 5 rockets

Capitalism in space: Arianespace yesterday announced that it has purchased the last ten Ariane 5 rockets as part of the company’s transition to its new Ariane 6 rocket in 2020.

These rockets appear to be for launches from 2020 to 2023, during a time period when they will be testing Ariane 6 and initiating its first operational flights.

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Arianespace aims for 14 launches in 2018

The competition heats up: Arianespace officials told reporters today that it plans to complete 14 launches in 2018, which would be a record for the company.

For 2018, the company is targeting seven launches of the Ariane 5 model, four launches for the Soyuz model and three launches of the Vega satellite launcher.

Isn’t competition wonderful? SpaceX forces everyone to lower their launch prices, and instead of going out of business, which the old rocket companies were saying would happen for decades should they be forced to drop prices, everyone gets more customers, more business, and more profits. I am shocked, shocked!

Whether Arianespace can maintain this growth however is another story. As newer rocket companies, such as Blue Origin, come on line with even lower costs, I am not sure their more expensive rockets will survive.

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ArianeGroup to begin production of first Ariane 6 rocket

Capitalism in space: Having completed a new review of the design of its new Ariane 6 rocket, ArianeGroup and ESA have decided to begin production for a planned launch in 2020.

I continue to wonder how they expect this expendable rocket to compete for launch business with both SpaceX and Blue Origin flying reusables by 2020. At best, I see the member states of the European Space Agency saddled with the requirement to use this more expensive rocket, which will seriously handicap them in the competition to settle the solar system.

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Europe commits $107 million for new rocket and space plane

The European Space Agency (ESA) today allocated $107 million to develop both a new larger version of its Vega rocket as well as an orbital version of the spaceplane engineering test vehicle flown in 2015.

The Vega-E will be larger and will give them another rocket capable of competing for launch business, but the space plane project is more interesting.

ESA awarded 36.7 million split between Avio and Thales Alenia Space Italy for Space Rider, an unmanned spaceplane capable of lifting 800 kilograms to LEO for missions up to two months. A single Space Rider should be capable of six missions with refurbishing, according to Thales Alenia Space.

Space Rider leverages technology from ESA’s Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV), which performed a suborbital mission in February 2015, landing in the Pacific Ocean. Unlike its predecessor, Space Rider is designed for ground landings. ESA tasked Thales Alenia Space with building Space Rider’s reentry module based on the IXV.

It seems Europe wants its own version of X-37B and Dream Chaser.

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Europe finally begins to realize that reusability cuts costs

Capitalism in space: Faced with stiff and increasing competition from SpaceX, European governments are finally beginning to realize that their decades of poo-pooing the concept of rocket reusability might have been a big mistake.

In what was likely an unexpected question during a Nov. 19 interview with Europe 1 radio, French Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire was asked if SpaceX meant the death of Ariane.

“Death? I’m not sure I’d say that. But I am certain of the threat,” Le Maire said. “I am worried.” Le Maire cited figures that are far from proven — including a possible 80% reduction in the already low SpaceX Falcon 9 launch price once the benefits of reusability are realized. “We need to relfect on a reusable launcher in Europe, and we need to invest massively in innovation,” Le Maire said.

Then there was a report out of Germany that has concluded that SpaceX commitment to reusability is about to pay off.

The article also cites those in Europe and with the U.S. company ULA that remain convinced that they can compete with expendable rockets. In reading their analysis, however, I was struck by how much it appeared they were putting their heads in the sand to avoid facing the realities, one of which has been the obvious fact that SpaceX has been competitively running rings around them all. This is a company that did not even exist a decade ago. This year it very well could launch more satellites than Europe and ULA combined.

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ESA to lead international effort to track falling Chinese space station

The European Space Agency has taken the lead position in an international effort to track China’s falling Tiangong-1 test space station module.

The goal of the effort is to improve the accuracy of predicting the fall of such objects. Tiangong-1, at 8.5 tons, is big enough for some pieces to survive re-entry and crash to the ground. Improving the predictions of where it will fall will reduce the chances of the debris causing harm.

I first read of this effort from this news story, which contained in its last sentence one piece of interesting news having nothing to do with Tiangong-1:

The next such launch [of a Chinese space station module] will be of the Tianhe core module around 2019 on a new Long March 5B rocket, the country’s largest and most powerful so far. [emphasis mine]

It appears China has quietly renamed its big Long March 5 rocket, adding a “B” to the name. This name change strongly indicates what I have suspected for months, that the July launch failure has required China to significantly redesign the rocket. Apparently, the poor performance of the rocket’s first stage engines was caused by fundamental design problems.

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Motor for ArianeGroup’s next generation rockets ready for testing

Capitalism in space: The first full scale solid rocket motor for ArianeGroup’s next generation rockets, the Ariane 6 and the Vega-C, is now ready for testing.

The P120C is the largest solid-propellant rocket motor ever built in one segment. Each P120C will hold over 140 tonnes of propellant in a carbon fibre casing almost 11.5 m long and about 3.4 m in diameter. It is derived from Vega’s current first stage motor, the P80, which holds 88 tonnes of propellant.

The design builds on existing expertise and lessons learned with Vega’s P80, and it increases Vega performance with Vega-C. Two or four P120Cs will be strapped onto Ariane 6 as boosters for liftoff.

The use of this solid rocket on both the upgraded Vega-C and the larger Ariane 6 illustrates how the privately controlled ArianeGroup is trying to reduce costs. In the past, Arianespace would have had different companies within the ESA build different solid rockets for Vega-C and Ariane 6 in order to distribute the work to different member countries, even though having two different development contracts would have increased costs.

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Canadian Inuit officials demand halt to rocket launch

The coming dark age: Canadian Inuit officials are demanding that the launch of a European atmospheric research satellite by a converted Russian ICBM be stopped out of fear of the pollution it might cause.

The position of the rocket company is based on calculated engineering:

In a statement to CBC News, the European Space Agency insisted the fuel won’t reach Earth’s surface. “Please remember that under standard pressure, hydrazine boils at 113.5 C,” the agency said. The stage containing the fuel will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere much hotter than that, it said. “The structural parts lose their integrity and by melting the destruction of the stage occurs. The agency said that six kilometres above the ground “the propellant components have completely burnt up.”

The position of the protesters is based on fear and lack of knowledge:

The concern for Inuit is the rocket’s second stage, which contains hydrazine-based fuel and is expected to splash down in the North Water Polynya. Though it’s outside of Canada and Denmark’s international waters, it’s home to a vast array of birds and marine mammals that Inuit rely on for food.

“It’s the birthing ground of all the animals that we eat, that people in the North depend upon,” said Eva Aariak, Canada’s commissioner on the Inuit Circumpolar Council and former Nunavut premier. “I know it’s being played down in terms of the kind of effect it would have, but nobody knows. This is the most concerning part is that nobody really knows. And before people know exactly what kind of effect it can have, we will keep fighting.” [emphasis mine]

The article also interviews a pro-Inuit scientist whose primary evidence apparently comes from a youtube video.

There is no doubt that hydrazine is very toxic, which is why it is generally not used as the launch fuel for rockets. However, these protests appear based on mindless fear, almost like the protesters were primitive tribesman afraid of thunder. Ah, but maybe that is exactly what they are!

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ArianeGroup struggles with the concept of reusability

Capitalism in space: ArianeGroup, the company building ESA’s next generation rocket Ariane 6, is debating when and if it should introduce reusability into its design.

[Patrick Bonguet, head of the Ariane 6 program,] said ArianeGroup is studying reusability with Prometheus “in order to be sure to take the right path at the right moment.” Those efforts are mostly to prevent Europe from being caught flat-footed in the wake of other reusable launch systems, namely from SpaceX and now also Blue Origin.

Reusability is far from a primary focus, however. “We still have not understood, would we save money by reusing? At least with our launch rate?” he asked. “We hope to launch 12 times a year. If we reuse 12 times, that means we only manufacture one time per year. It is difficult for us to have that.”

Bonguet said reusability would essentially erase the production efficiencies ArianeGroup is striving for, starving the Ariane 6 industrial base of the work upon which it relies. A smaller tip-toe into reusability could come through salvaging Ariane 6’s payload fairings. Swiss manufacturer Ruag Space is developing reusable fairings, which Bonguet said are of interest to ArianeGroup.

I guarantee that by the mid-2020s they will entirely be “caught flat-footed” if they have not begun by then the use of reusable rockets.

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ArianeGroup’s transition to Ariane 6 rocket

Link here. It appears that this transition not only includes replacing Ariane 5 with Ariane 6, but also the phase out of Russian Soyuz rockets by 2022. This loss of business is going to hurt Russia, as the government there desperately needs cash with the drop in oil prices.

The article also noted that ArianeGroup will charge two prices for Ariane 6, depending on configuration and payload, $85 million and $130 million per launch. These prices seem high, but because they likely cover the launch of two satellites, customers will be charged half these amounts, $40 million and $65 million, which is competitive in today’s market.

Will these prices be competitive in 2020s? I have my doubts. I estimate, based on news reports, that SpaceX is charging about $40 million today for a launch with a reused first stage, and $62 million for a launch with an entirely new rocket. Give them another five years of development and I expect those prices to drop significantly, especially as they shift to entirely reused first stages for almost every launch and begin to demonstrate a routine launch cadence of more than one launch per month.

This quote below explains how ArianeGroup really intends to stay alive in the launch market:

The price targets assume that European governments — the European Space Agency, the European Commission, Eumetsat and individual EU nations — agree to guarantee the equivalent of five Ariane 62 missions per year, plus at least two missions for the light-lift Vega rocket.

In other words, ArianeGroup really doesn’t wish to compete for business. It wants to use government coercion to force European space agencies and businesses to buy its product. They might get that, but the long term result will be a weak European presence in space, as everyone else finds cheaper and more efficient ways to do things.

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ESA buys the first Ariane 6 launches

The European Space Agency (ESA) has purchased the first two Ariane 6 launches to place four of its Galileo GPS satellites in orbit in the 2020-21 timeframe.

This is not a big surprise, since ESA is mandated to use Arianespace’s rockets, and the space agency is the obvious candidate for making the first commitment to this new rocket’s use.

The press release does not mention the price that Arianespace is charging for these launches, but I suspect it isn’t anywhere near as cheap as they will have to charge to truly private and commercial customers. Essentially, I am willing to bet that this contract award is a bit of crony capitalism, designed to pass some extra cash from ESA to Arianespace.

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Arianespace announces new launch contracts

Capitalism in space: Arianespace today announced it has won a new launch contract for two different satellites, bringing its launch manifest to 53.

The press release contains a lot of interesting tidbits:

  • They plan to complete 11 launches in 2017, which is slightly above their yearly average in the past six years.
  • In 2018 they presently have only 7 launches planned, the lowest number since 2013.
  • Of the 53 launches, Ariane 5 will do 17, Soyuz 27, and Vega 9, suggesting a shift away from Ariane 5, which has been the company’s mainstay.
  • The private joint partnership of Airbus and Safran, now called ArianeGroup, has taken control of the business, and has begun streamlining it.
  • Arianespace has now been relegated to only handling “customer relations” and launch operations.

Overall, it looks like this European private/government partnership is doing reasonably well in the new very competitive launch market. I still expect their business to shrink in the coming years, but I think they will be around for awhile.

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ESA unveils dual orbiter mission to Mercury

After twenty years of development, the European Space Agency this week finally unveiled the completed dual orbiters that it hopes to launch on a seven year journey to Mercury in October 2018.

The 4,100-kilogram BepiColombo consists of two orbiters that will launch together — the ESA-managed Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and the JAXA-owned Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO). The two spacecraft will be delivered to the orbit around Mercury stacked on top of each other by the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM). During the seven-year journey, the MMO will be shielded from the sun by the MMO Sunshield and Interface Structure (MOSIF), which will also serve as a mechanical and electrical interface between the two orbiters.

“MPO focuses on the planet, the surface and the interior size,” said Reininghous. “The orbit is a polar one — 480km times approximately 1500km — a little bit elliptical but extremely close to the planet as such with a return period of 2.3 hours. The data return is estimated at 1.5 gigabit per year.”

The MMO will focus on the planetary environment including the planet’s atmosphere, according to Reininghous. “The orbit is also polar but far more elliptical — 590 km times approximately 11,700 km. It has a period of 9.3 hours. The data return is approximately 10 percent of what we expect from the MPO.”

The European orbiter is much larger and more expensive, with Japanese probe budget being about a tenth the cost.

According to ESA, the mission took so long to build because in 2004, after about seven years of development, ESA suddenly realized that its orbiter’s thermal protection was inadequate, and required a complete redesign. To me, this is either outright incompetence (they knew from the start they were going to Mercury) or a clever way to extend the funding so that it provides an entire lifetime’s work for its builders. Think about it. Twenty-one years from concept to launch, then seven years to fly to Mercury, and then one to two years in orbit. That’s more than thirty years for this single mission.

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Success of test mission paves way for orbiting gravitational wave detector

The success of LISA Pathfinder during the past year to test the technology for building an orbiting gravitational wave detector has now made it possible for Europe to approve construction of the full scale telescope, set to launch in the 2030s.

The LISA Pathfinder mission, launched in late 2015, beat its precision target by a factor of 1,000 and quieted critics who have doubted its potential, says project scientist Paul McNamara, an astrophysicist at ESA in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. “This is not the impossible task that some people believed it was.”

Currently set to fly in 2034, the full-scale Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) will be the space analogue of the Laser Interfero-meter Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), two machines in the United States — each with a pair of 4-kilometre-long arms — that first detected the ripples by ‘hearing’ the merger of two black holes. LISA’s three probes will fly in a triangle, millions of kilometres apart, making the mission sensitive to much longer gravitational waves, such as the ripples produced by the collisions of even larger black holes.

The article also notes that the European Space Agency also approved two other large missions, one to launch in 2022 and go the moons of Jupiter, another an X-ray observatory that will launch in 2028.

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ESA discovers the wonders of capitalism!

Three stories today illustrate how competition is revolutionizing and energizing the European aerospace industry:

The first two stories are clearly examples of the new competition within the launch industry. The first describes the effort by ESA and Airbus-Safran, a partnership now dubbed ArianeGroup, to get the Ariane 6 rocket built fast and cheaply, under pressure as they are by SpaceX’s lower prices.

The manufacturing consortium is looking for a 40% cost reduction, at least, in the Ariane 6, compared with the Ariane 5. In part that is coming from exploiting new materials and new manufacturing techniques (3D printing, friction stir welding, augmented reality design, etc) and in part by maximising the common use of elements in both the 62 and 64 variants. Avio’s solid-fuelled booster is also the same as the first stage on the company’s Vega rocket, which launches much smaller satellites.

But a big cost saving will come from simply employing fewer people. “There is a transition from Ariane 5 to Ariane 6 (from 2020 to 2023), but from 2024, 2025 onwards – our workforce will be 30% less than today,” explained Hans Steininger, the boss of MT Aerospace, which is making the rocket’s huge metallic propellant tanks.

The second article describes how ESA is suddenly changing its reusable mini-shuttle program from a typical, staid, dead-end research project (where they do a series of test flights with no thought towards using what they learned) to a private mini-shuttle available for lease by researchers of all stripes.

By 2025, ESA officials said, Space Rider could be operating commercially, flying science payloads and bringing them back to Earth for roughly $9,200 per kilogram. Arianespace, the Evry, France-based launch services provider, would likely serve as Space Rider’s operator, offering industry and government customers the opportunity to fill the spaceplane 800-kilogram payload capacity with microgravity science, materials testing, telecommunications and robotics demonstrations.

Previously, the plan had been to test fly this spaceplane without selling its cargo capacity. Now they want to make money on it, right from the beginning.

The third article meanwhile illustrates that the old way of doing things is still a factor in Europe’s space effort. Europe’s Galileo GPS satellite network has been delayed badly by faulty atomic clocks. They are replacing them, and are preparing to resume launches. However, in ordering 8 new satellites they have also decided to keep OHB, the same contractor who provided the faulty atomic clocks, rather than give the contract to a competitor or at least split it between two contractors.

The contract, expected in late 2016, was delayed as the commission and the 22-nation European Space Agency (ESA) debated whether to maintain OHB as Galileo’s sole supplier or to award all or part of the contract to competitor Thales Alenia Space Italia.

In the event, the commission and ESA agreed that the savings realized from ordering recurrent-model spacecraft from OHB, and the schedule assurance this provided, outweighed arguments on behalf of dual sourcing. “Dual sourcing is always important but it needs to be weighed against other program requirements” including cost, said Paul Verhoef, ESA’s director of navigation. Verhoef said ESA and the commission may pursue dual sourcing for the next round of Galileo orders, when a new design will be used for the system’s second generation.

I suspect that as competition continues to prove its worth ESA will move to accept the idea of competition in the building of future GPS satellites. For right now, however, this change was more than this large government bureaucracy could handle.

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Europe considers a helicopter drone for future Mars missions

The European Space Agency is considering flying a technology demonstration helicopter drone on a future Mars mission.

Note that they don’t yet have the money to build this, and it appears that they don’t yet have a mission to fly it on. What they have done is just completed a preliminary study, which suggests the idea is feasible. They are now lobbying for more cash to move forward.

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3D printing of bricks, using moondust

European engineers have managed to print bricks using simulated moondust and focused sunlight.

The resulting bricks have the equivalent strength of gypsum, and are set to undergo detailed mechanical testing. Some bricks show some warping at the edges, Advenit adds, because their edges cool faster than the centre: “We’re looking how to manage this effect, perhaps by occasionally accelerating the printing speed so that less heat accumulates within the brick. But for now this project is a proof of concept, showing that such a lunar construction method is indeed feasible.”

The video at the link is very unconvincing. While it shows film of the printing process, it does not show film of anyone holding or manipulating the finished bricks. Instead, it shows one or two photos of finished bricks, all of which give the impression that these bricks crumble easily at the edges, I suspect that the bricks are simply too fragile for practical use.

So, is this a proof of concept? Maybe. They have at least shown that 3D printing using materials on the Moon might work.

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European push for more space regulations under international law

In the European space community and governmental circles, there appears to be a new push to revise the Outer Space Treaty, focused specifically on increasing the treaty’s regulatory power in the area of large satellite constellations and space junk.

This week [the city of] Darmstadt hosts a closed-door, governmental meeting of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC). Whether it was planned or not, the IADC is set to discuss a much-needed renewal of international space law, which is, experts admit, rather vague. But how far they will go is anyone’s guess.

…There is a palpable sense that the space community needs enforceable international laws and regulations, rather than – or merely to bolster – its current inter-agency agreements. They’ve served us so far, but few countries have actually signed up to them. That leaves a lot of wriggle-room, especially as space becomes increasingly commercialized.

Most of our space activities are governed by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. It’s a short document that primarily seeks to ensure space operations are “peaceful” and for the good of all humanity. It is complemented by other agreements, including a set of documents on mitigating space debris. “We have a good, coherent set of justified rules and we don’t intend to alter them drastically,” said Christophe Bonnal of the French Space Agency, CNES, and the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) in closing remarks last week. “But we will improve them at the IADC meeting to include mega-constellations.”

It appears to me that this is a push-back against Luxembourg’s recent announcement that it is going to request a renegotiation of the Outer Space Treaty to allow for property rights in space. What this article is advocating instead is that the treaty increase its control and regulatory power over private satellite constellations, which at present are not covered by the treaty.

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