Tag Archives: European Space Agency

European planetary missions go dark because of Wuhan virus

The European Space Agency has suspended operations and shut down several planetary missions, including two Mars orbiters and two solar missions, because of lockdowns imposed because of COVID-19.

The problem is that they don’t have enough people in their mission controls to operate everything. They are shutting these down so that they can continue operations on their Mecury mission BepiColumbo, for example.

The article also tries to lay the blame for the recently announced launch delay of Europe’s Mars 2020 rover to 2022 on the virus, but that’s false. The mission was delayed because it simply wasn’t ready.

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ExoMars2020 rover delayed until 2022

The European Space Agency (ESA) today announced that they are delaying the launch of their ExoMars2020 rover mission until the next launch window in 2022

The press release says this will give them the time “necessary to make all components of the spacecraft fit for the Mars adventure.” Considering that the spacecraft’s parachutes have yet to have a successful high altitude test, that the entire spacecraft is not yet assembled, and that when they did the first thermal test of the rover the glue for the solar panel hinges failed, this seems that they need to do a lot of testing.

Overall the decision is smart. Better to give them the time to get this right then launch on time and have a failure.

At the same time, there appears to be something fundamentally wrong within the management of this project at ESA. This project was first proposed in 2001, and has gone through repeated restructurings and redesigns. Moreover, they began planning the rover for this 2020 launch in 2011, and after ten years were not ready for launch.

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ExoMars2020 parachute tests delayed until late March

The European Space Agency (ESA) has decided to delay until late March the next high altitude tests of the revamped ExoMars2020 parachutes, despite the success of recent ground tests.

The tests of the 15-meter-diameter supersonic and 35-meter-wide subsonic parachutes—an essential part of the entry, descent and landing phase of the mission—had been scheduled for December and February. The delay comes despite six ground tests demonstrating successful parachute extraction – the point at which damage was caused in earlier, failed high altitude tests.

Both tests need to be successful for the go-ahead for launch of 300-kilogram Rosalind Franklin rover during the July 25 to Aug. 13 Mars launch window. Any failure would mean a wait of 26 months for the next launch window, opening late 2022.

There will be a meeting next week of the project’s top management, from both Russia and Europe, and I strongly suspect that they are going to decide to delay launch to the 2022 launch window. Not only have the parachutes not been tested successfully at high altitude, they recently discovered an issue with the glue holding the solar panel hinges on the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover.

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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.

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ExoMars2020 passes new parachute tests

Revisions to Europe’s ExoMars2020 parachutes have successfully passed tests at JPL in California.

Working with Nasa, ESA made modifications to the way the parachutes are released from the bag, which avoids creating so much friction. Using a special rig at JPL, the parachutes have now been tested up to their expected extraction speed of just over 200km/h with no sign of damage. Further confirmatory tests will now take place.

Time remains very short however. The launch window for ExoMars2020 is this coming summer.

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Soyuz rocket launches five satellites for Arianespace

A Russian Soyuz rocket, launching from French Guiana for Arianespace, successfully placed five satellites in orbit early this morning, including CHEOPS, a European space telescope designed to study exoplanets.

Though this was a Russian rocket, I count it as an Arianespace launch as that is the company under which the launch operates. I also realize this is open to debate.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

30 China
20 Russia
13 SpaceX
8 Arianespace (Europe)

China still leads the U.S. 30 to 26 in the national rankings.

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ESA hires private company to remove space junk

Capitalism in space: The European Space Agency has hired the private company ClearSpace to fly an unmanned mission aimed at de-orbiting a large no-longer-needed launch component of its Vega rocket.

The European Space Agency signed a debris-removal contract with Swiss startup ClearSpace tasking the company with deorbiting a substantial piece of a Vega rocket left in orbit in 2013.

The mission, dubbed ClearSpace-1, is slated to launch in 2025 to capture and deorbit a 100-kilogram Vespa payload adapter an Arianespace Vega left in orbit after deploying ESA’s Proba-V remote-sensing satellite.

ClearSpace will lead a consortium of European companies in building a spacecraft equipped with four robotic arms to capture debris and drag it into Earth’s atmosphere.

The real importance of this contract is its nature. ESA is not taking the lead in designing or building the robot to do this work. Instead, it is acting merely as a customer, hiring ClearSpace to develop and build it. Afterward the robot design will belong to ClearSpace, which will then be able to sell that design for further space junk removal contracts.

[Luc Piguet, co-founder and chief executive of ClearSpace] said that while this first mission will destroy both the debris and the servicer spacecraft, future plans call for servicers that could deorbit multiple objects without also destroying themselves.

It seems that the ESA is following the recommendations I put forth in Capitalism in space, shifting power and ownership of its space missions from the agency to the private sector. This is excellent news.

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Big budget boost for ESA

The European Space Agency (ESA) received its largest budget increase ever, 20%, from its 22 member nations at a high level meeting yesterday.

The meeting also included commitments to remain a partner in ISS to 2030 and increase participation in Lunar Gateway. From the press release:

With worldwide partners, Europe will take its place at the heart of space exploration going farther than we have ever gone before – we continue our commitment to the International Space Station until 2030 as well as contributing vital transportation and habitation modules for the Gateway, the first space station to orbit the Moon. ESA’s astronauts recruited in 2009 will continue to receive flight assignments until all of them have been to space for a second time, and we will also begin the process of recruiting a new class to continue European exploration in low Earth orbit and beyond. European astronauts will fly to the Moon for the first time. Member States have confirmed European support for a ground-breaking Mars Sample Return mission, in cooperation with NASA.

ESA will help develop the commercial benefits of space for innovators and governments across the Member States, boosting competitiveness in the NewSpace environment. We will develop the first fully flexible satellite systems to be integrated with 5G networks, as well as next-generation optical technology for a fibre-like ‘network in the sky’, marking a transformation in the satellite communication industry. Satellite communications will join forces with navigation to begin satnav for the Moon, while closer to home commercial companies can access funding for new applications of navigation technologies through the NAVISP programme. ESA Ministers have secured a smooth transition to the next generation of launchers: Ariane 6 and Vega-C, and have given the green light to Space Rider, ESA’s new reusable spaceship.

Isn’t competition wonderful? ESA’s budget has been stagnant for years. Then SpaceX comes along and threatens its commercial market share while generating a new political will in the U.S. to renew its own space effort, and suddenly the European nations that make up ESA decide they need to do the same.

Much of the proposed program for ESA is very likely to happen, especially the commitments to a variety of astronomical and planetary missions. The agency’s commercial effort is also likely to happen, but whether it can happen fast enough to be competitive is questionable. As a government agency ESA’s track record in its effort to compete in the launch market has not been impressive. It took them far too long to accept the idea of reuseable rockets or the need to cut their costs drastically.

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Arianespace launches two communications satellites

Arianespace today used its Ariane 5 rocket to launch two communications satellites, one a military satellite for Egypt and another a commercial satellite for Inmarsat.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

26 China
18 Russia
11 SpaceX
7 Europe (Arianespace)

China still leads the U.S. 26 to 23 in the national rankings.

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Mars Express confirms ancient glaciers in northern Martian mid-latitudes

Perspective view of Deuteronilus Mensae
Click for full image.

The European Space Agency’s orbiter Mars Express has confirmed the presence of large fractured ice sheets suggestive of buried and ancient glaciers. These ice sheets are within one region on Mars located in the mid-latitudes where many such glacial features have been found. They are also in the transition zone between the northern lowlands and the southern highlands.

This landscape shows clear and widespread signs of significant, lasting erosion. As is common with fretted terrain, it contains a mix of cliffs, canyons, scarps, steep-sided and flat-topped mounds (mesa), furrows, fractured ridges and more, a selection of which can be seen dotted across the frame.

These features were created as flowing material dissected the area, cutting through the existing landscape and carving out a web of winding channels. In the case of Deuteronilus Mensae, flowing ice is the most likely culprit. Scientists believe that this terrain has experienced extensive past glacial activity across numerous martian epochs.

It is thought that glaciers slowly but surely ate away at the plains and plateaus that once covered this region, leaving only a scattering of steep, flat, isolated mounds of rock in their wake.

Smooth deposits cover the floor itself, some marked with flow patterns from material slowly moving downhill – a mix of ice and accumulated debris that came together to form and feed viscous, moving flows of mass somewhat akin to a landslide or mudflow here on Earth.

Studies of this region by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter [MRO] have shown that most of the features seen here do indeed contain high levels of water ice. Estimates place the ice content of some glacial features in the region at up to 90%. This suggests that, rather than hosting individual or occasional icy pockets and glaciers, Deuteronilus Mensae may actually represent the remnants of an old regional ice sheet. This ice sheet may once have covered the entire area, lying atop the plateaus and plains. As the martian climate changed this ice began to shift around and disappear, slowly revealing the rock beneath.

Overall, the data coming from both Mars Express and MRO increasingly suggests that there is a lot of buried glacial ice in the mid-latitudes. Mars might be a desert, but it is increasingly beginning to look like much of the planet is a desert like Antarctica, not the Sahara.

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Europe schedules new parachute tests for ExoMars 2020

Following the failure on all previous tests of the parachutes for its ExoMars 2020 Mars lander, the European Space Agency has now made some design changes and is planning to do additional tests in the first quarter of 2020.

ESA has also requested support from NASA to benefit from their hands-on parachute experience. This cooperation gives access to special test equipment at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that will enable ESA to conduct multiple dynamic extraction tests on the ground in order to validate any foreseen design adaptations prior to the upcoming high altitude drop tests.

The next opportunities for high altitude drop tests are at a range in Oregon, US, January–March. ESA is working to complete the tests of both the 15 m and 35 m parachute prior to the ExoMars project’s ‘qualification acceptance review’, which is planned for the end of April in order to meet the mission launch window (26 July–11 Aug 2020).

Their schedule is incredibly tight, since their launch window to Mars is in July 2020, and if they fail to meet it the launch will have to be delayed two years until the next launch window.

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Mars Express looks at Martian river relic

Mars Express perspective view of Nirgal Vallis
Click for full image.

The Mars Express science team today released a mosaic produced by the orbiter’s high resolution camera of the 300 hundred mile long relic river valley Nirgal Vallis. The image to the right, reduced to post here, is the oblique view that was produced by computer using the camera’s stereo images.

This ancient valley system is named Nirgal Vallis, and was once filled with running water that spread across Mars. By exploring the characteristics of the surrounding craters, scientists estimate the system’s age to be between 3.5 and 4 billion years old.

The part of Nirgal Vallis captured in these images lies towards the western end of the river system, where it is slowly spreading out and dissipating; the eastern end is far less branched and more clearly defined as a single valley, and opens out into the large Uzboi Vallis – the suspected location of a large, ancient lake that has long since dried up.

Nirgal Vallis is a typical example of a feature known as an amphitheatre-headed valley. As the name suggests, rather than ending bluntly or sharply, the ends of these tributaries have the characteristic semi-circular, rounded shape of an Ancient Greek amphitheatre. Such valleys also typically have steep walls, smooth floors, and, if sliced through at a cross-section, adopt a ‘U’ shape. The valleys pictured here are about 200 m deep and 2 km wide, and their floors are covered in sandy dunes; the appearance of these dunes indicates that martian winds tend to blow roughly parallel to the valley walls.

Unlike the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which is for taking close-up images of specific surface features, Mars Express is producing a high resolution survey of the entire planet. Its camera does not have quite the same resolution, but as it is taking wider images that’s okay.

What is unfortunate is the European Space Agency’s policy for releasing those images. Unlike MRO, they do not make them all available to the public instantly. Instead, they periodically do press releases like today’s, highlighting a specific region or single large feature. As a result, Mars Express does not get the press it deserves.

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ESA asks NASA’s help on ExoMars rover parachute problems

The European Space Agency (ESA) has asked for help from NASA in trying to figure out the cause of the failures during testing of the parachutes they want to use to safely land their ExoMars 2020 rover, Rosalind Franklin.

So far the parachutes have been damaged on all previous tests. They plan two more tests in December and February.

Both tests, to be held at high altitude to simulate the Martian atmosphere, need to succeed in order for the parachutes to pass qualification. TheExoMars mission faces a final review scheduled April 2020, Francois Spoto, ExoMars program manager, told SpaceNews. “Now the situation is critical, of course, because we have limited time and no margin,” Spoto says.

If one of the tests fails, the ExoMars mission will miss the narrow July 25 to Aug. 13 launch window next year and slip to the next window, in late 2022. The lander and rover segments are meanwhile progressing well and ready for environmental testing.

They held a workshop on the previous failures, and obtained new analysis of the causes from JPL engineers.

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More parachute problems for ExoMars 2020?

Space is hard: Eric Berger at Ars Technica reported yesterday that the parachute issues for Europe’s ExoMars 2020 mission are far more serious that publicly announced.

The project has had two parachute failures during test flights in May and then August. However,

The problems with the parachutes may be worse than has publicly been reported, however. Ars has learned of at least one other parachute failure during testing of the ExoMars lander. Moreover, the agency has yet to conduct even a single successful test of the parachute canopy that is supposed to deploy at supersonic speeds, higher in the Martian atmosphere.

Repeated efforts to get comments from the project about this issue have gone unanswered.

Their launch window opens in July 2020, only about ten months from now. This is very little time to redesign and test a parachute design. Furthermore, they will only begin the assembly of the spacecraft at the end of this year, which is very very late in the game.

When the August test failure was confirmed, I predicted that there is a 50-50 chance they will launch in 2020. The lack of response from the project above makes me now think that their chances have further dropped, to less than 25%.

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Results released of July Vega launch failure investigation

The European Space Agency (ESA) this week released the results of its investigation into the July 10, 2019 launch failure of Arianespace’s Vega rocket, the first such failure after 14 successful launches.

The failure had occurred about the time the first stage had separated and the second stage Z23 rocket motor was to ignite. The investigation has found that the separation and second stage ignition both took place as planned, followed by “a sudden and violent event” fourteen seconds later, which caused the rocket to break up.

They now have pinned that event to “a thermo-structural failure in the forward dome area of the Z23 motor.”

The report says they plan to complete corrective actions and resume launches by the first quarter of 2020.

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SpaceX issues explanation for nonresponse in potential satellite collision issue

SpaceX today issued an explanation for why it had not responded when ESA officials had asked them to change the orbit of one of its Starlink smallsats to protect against a possible collision with ESA’s Aeolus spacecraft.

SpaceX, in a statement Sept. 3, said it was aware of a potential conjunction Aug. 28 and communicated with ESA. At that time, though, the threat of a potential collision was only about 1 in 50,000, below the threshold where a maneuver was warranted. When refined data from the U.S. Air Force increased the probability to within 1 in 1,000, “a bug in our on-call paging system prevented the Starlink operator from seeing the follow on correspondence on this probability increase,” a company spokesperson told SpaceNews.

“SpaceX is still investigating the issue and will implement corrective actions,” the spokesperson said of the glitch. “However, had the Starlink operator seen the correspondence, we would have coordinated with ESA to determine best approach with their continuing with their maneuver or our performing a maneuver.”

This incident increasingly strikes me as a tempest in a teapot created by ESA for any number of reasons, including their overall dislike of SpaceX (for generally making all government-run space programs look foolish). There is also this quote from an ESA official in the article above:

“The case just showed that, in the absence of traffic rules and communication protocols, collision avoidance has to rely on the pragmatism of the involved operators,” Krag said. “This is done today by exchange of emails. Such a process is not viable any longer with the increase of space traffic.” He said that, if the Space Safety initiative is funded, ESA would like to demonstrate automated maneuver coordination by 2023. [emphasis mine]

I can just see ESA officials drooling with eager anticipation the coming of more “traffic rules and communication protocols,” partly inspired by this fake crisis they just created. Imposing more rules and getting increased funding is what they do best, since it certainly isn’t exploring space with creative and efficient innovation.

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ESA confirms ExoMars parachute test failure

You heard it hear first! The European Space Agency (ESA) today confirmed earlier stories from last week that the parachutes for its ExoMars 2020 spacecraft had failed during a high altitude drop test on August 5.

I reported this on Saturday, August 10, noting that ESA had not confirmed it. It apparently took them a week to write the press release.

This was the second consecutive test failure for these parachutes, as noted in the release.

On 28 May this year, the deployment sequence of all four parachutes was tested for the first time from a height of 29 km – released from a stratospheric helium balloon. While the deployment mechanisms activated correctly, and the overall sequence was completed, both main parachute canopies suffered damage.

Following hardware inspection, adaptations were implemented to the design of the parachutes and bags ready for the next high-altitude test, which was conducted on 5 August, this time just focusing on the larger, 35 m diameter, parachute.

Preliminary assessment shows that the initial steps were completed correctly, however damages to the canopy were observed prior to inflation, similar to the previous test. As a result, the test module descended under the drag of the pilot chute alone.

The tests occur at high altitude where the Earth’s atmosphere mimics the thin atmosphere of Mars. In both cases it appears the parachutes became damaged very early in their deployment process, possibly during deployment. This means there might be a design problem with the deployment process. It also means that both tests were unable to test the chutes themselves, as they were damaged before inflation, meaning that the engineers still do not know if they would work as intended once filled with air.

All this puts incredible time pressure on the mission, which needs to launch in the summer of 2020 to meet its launch window. There is very little time to redesign and retest these chutes. I would rate their chances of meeting that launch date as less than 50-50.

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Reports of another ExoMars parachute failure during test

Following a failure of ExoMars’ parachutes during a May test, there are now reports that a second failure occurred on August 5.

A fresh test of the parachute system for the Russian-European mission ExoMars-2020 have failed again as a structural mockup of the Russian-built lander crashed during the simulated landing, a source familiar with the test results told Sputnik.

The test with the use of a high-altitude balloon was carried out on August 5 at a Swedish Space Corporation’s test site in northern Sweden.

“Tests of the parachute system at the Esrange test site in Sweden failed. A full-size mockup of the landing module of the ExoMars-2020 Martian station crashed during the landing,” the source said.

I have seen this report in two other sites, but it has not yet been confirmed by the European Space Agency.

If these reports are true, the chances of ExoMars launching in July 2020 is likely almost nil. They haven’t even begun assembling the spacecraft, and have had two parachute failures in tests, with the second destroying the prototype used for those tests.

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SpaceX and Arianespace complete successful launches

Today, as I was giving my lecture in Denver, both Arianespace and SpaceX successfully completed launches.

SpaceX put a commercial communications satellite in orbit. The first stage was not recovered, but this was intended. The company however was successful in catching one half fairing in the giant net of its recovery ship Mrs. Tree., the second time they have done so.

Arianespace used its Ariane 5 rocket to launch a commercial communications satellite and a European Space Agency data relay satellite.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

12 Russia
11 China
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 India

The U.S. now leads Russia 16 to 12 in the national rankings.

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Update on Europe’s Galileo GPS-type constellation failure

Link here. Key quote:

A new source has told Inside GNSS that the ongoing Galileo outage “…has to do with the Precise Time Facility (PTF), a redundant facility present in both Italian and German control centers.” This is the second source close to the program who has identified the PTF as the focus of the incident. Our source adds, “Incidentally, the redundancy apparently did not work.” So, the suggestion is that both PTFs, at two separate European locations, have failed. And, our source adds, “Take into account that the two major outages in the last two years were also caused by problems in the PTF. There are major architectural problems within the GMS [Galileo Mission Segment] under Thales Alenia Space…responsibility.” [emphasis mine]

The article does not go into any details how it is possible for two redundant facilities to fail at the same time. It does note however that while the U.S.’s GPS, Russia’s Glonass, and China’s Beidou systems all are operated by the military, which takes very seriously security, Europe’s Galileo is not.

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ESA moves forward on building its own reusable X-37B

The European Space Agency (ESA) has approved the preliminary design reviews for its reusable mini-shuttle, dubbed Space Rider, that they hope to launch by 2022.

Launched on Vega-C, Space Rider will serve as an uncrewed high-tech space laboratory operating for periods longer than two months in low orbit. It will then re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and land, returning its valuable payload to eager engineers and scientists at the landing site. After minimal refurbishment it will be ready for its next mission with new payloads and a new mission.

Essentially this is Europe’s X-37B, but developed for commercial customers rather than the military. In fact, it suggests that Boeing, the builder of X-37B, is missing a major market by not developing its own commercial X-37B.

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Europe inaugurates ExoMars control center

The Europe Space Agency yesterday inaugurated the control center where it will control and download data from the ExoMars rover, Rosalind Franklin, scheduled to launch to Mars in the summer of 2020.

The control center also includes a dirt filled enclosure where they can simulate Martian conditions with a rover model.

The article outlined the project’s upcoming schedule:

Over the summer the rover will move to Toulouse, France, where it will be tested in Mars-like conditions. At the end of the year Rosalind Franklin will travel to Cannes to meet the landing and carrier modules for final assembly.

As I noted yesterday in my most recent rover update, this assembly, only six months before launch, gives them very little margin. If there are any problems during assembly, they will likely miss the 2020 launch window.

I also wonder if this will allow them any time to do acoustical and environmental testing, as was just completed on NASA’s 2020 rover, to make sure ExoMars can survive launch, landing, and the journey to Mars. If they forego those tests, they might discover after launch that they were launching a paperweight, not an expensive planetary probe.

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ESA agrees to subsidize Ariane 6 should it fail to sell

The European Space Agency (ESA) has signed an agreement with ArianeGroup, the private company building its next generation rocket Ariane 6, to provide subsidizes to the company should the rocket’s inability to get launch contracts continue.

The problem is that ESA had promised ArianeGroup seven launch contracts from its various governments during the rocket’s development, but only three so far have been signed. Ariane 6, though less expensive than Ariane 5, still costs too much (it is not going to be usable), and it appears that too many member nations in ESA don’t want to pay the extra bucks when they can get the same service cheaper from SpaceX.

This lack of contracts has caused ArianeGroup to slow development.

The new agreement gives the company a financial guarantee should the additional four launch contracts not materialize.

“If seven launch service contracts are not signed by the ministerial at the end of November, then the ESA DG [Director General Jan Woerner] will propose for decision to member states to complement the revenues needed for the first Ariane 64,” said [Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of space transportation].

In other words, Ariane 6 is going to turn out just like Ariane 5, an expensive rocket that never makes a profit. Moreover, if ESA requires its members to use its cost will handicap Europe’s future space efforts.

This isn’t a surprise. I predicted this likelihood back in September 2017 when ArianeGroup first announced the prices it planned to charge for Ariane 6 launches. Those prices, for launches in the 2020s, were higher than what SpaceX charges now, and were certainly going to be more uncompetitive in the future.

It seems that Europe’s aerospace industry, both in and out of government, can’t seem to understand these basics of the free market. You have to be competitive, and if you are not, the worst way to fix the problem is pour more money into an uncompetitive product. From the get-go they designed Ariane 6 as if it was 1990, when the industry said reusable rockets were impossible. The result is a rocket no one wants to buy, because everyone knows that by the mid-2020s they will have many inexpensive reusable rockets to choose from. Why buy an overpriced dinosaur?

So, instead of pouring subsidies into Ariane 6, as designed, ESA should be demanding for its money new designs from ArianeGroup that make the rocket cheaper to launch.

Europe does not appear to be doing this, however, so expect Europe to be badly crippled in the upcoming 21st century space race.

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ArianeGroup successfully test fires new solid rocket motor

Capitalism in space: ArianeGroup, the private consortium building Europe’s next generation of rockets, has successfully test fired the new solid rocket motor it will use for both its Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets.

The P120C is designed and built by a European consortium involving a joint venture known as Europropulsion, a venture between ArianeGroup and Avio, as well as CNES, the Italian ASI space agency, and Airbus Safran. This multinational venture uses the Avio facilities in Colleferro, Italy to manufacture the carbon fiber composite casing, a facility in France to build the ArianeGroup composite steerable nozzle, and the propellant casting and integration facilities in French Guiana to build up and prepare these boosters for flight.

The P120C, through its common use across launch vehicle lines and use of existing facilities, is designed to reduce costs as a competitive response to newer companies like SpaceX that have dramatically lowered launch costs and captured an increasing share of the worldwide launch market, dethroning the ArianeGroup from the dominating position it had held until very recently.

Without doubt they are going to save money using this solid rocket motor on both rockets. I remain somewhat skeptical, however, about whether they will achieve enough cost savings to compete with SpaceX. The seeming lack of interest by their primary European customers for Ariane 6 suggests this. It appears that its price might still be too high.

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BepiColombo begins first operational engine burn

The European/Japanese mission to Mercury has begun the first operational firing of its four ion engines, set to last for the next two months.

This might seem like a ridiculously long burn, since most conventional rocket engines fire for minutes, not months. These are ion engines, however, far more efficient but producing a very tiny acceleration. It takes a long time for their burns to accumulate a velocity change.

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ESA plans Vega rocket upgrades

In order to grab more market share, the European Space Agency today outlined a wide range of upgrades and options it is creating for its Vega rocket.

The article describes versions aimed at the smallsat market, the geosynchronous satellite market, and a recoverable mini-shuttle similar to the X-37B, dubbed Space Rider. All these options are expected to come on line by 2021.

Isn’t competition wonderful? Threatened by loss of market share by SpaceX, Europe has been forced to up its game, something it had been loath to do for decades.

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Europe picks landing site for its ExoMars 2020 rover

The European Space Agency (ESA) has chosen the landing site for its ExoMars 2020 rover, a generally flat area with scattered craters dubbed Oxia Palum.

After over 4 years of careful study of HiRISE and more recently CaSSIS images Oxia Planum was chosen because scientists were convinced that its fine grained sediments, deposited during the ancient Noachian epoch were ideally suited for the Exobiology rover. With an enormous catchment area the sediments will have captured organics from a wide variety of environments over a long period of time, including areas where life may have existed. The fine sediments should also be ideal for the ExoMars drill – it aims to get to 2 metres depth.

Remote identification with the Mars Express and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Infrared spectrometers shows the presence of clays and other minerals giving clues to its aqueous history. A large group of scientists have been working on proposing, characterising and down selecting the sites, all of which had fascinating aspects, but Oxia Planum is the clear winner on both science and engineering constraints.

Based on my analysis of the last two candidate sites, I would guess that they also picked Oxia Planum because it is less spectacular, flatter, and thus poses less risk. It also means the images from there will be a bit more boring for the ordinary person.

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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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European satellite designed to test space junk removal released from ISS

Europe’s RemoveDEBRIS satellite was released from ISS yesterday in preparation for its testing a variety of technologies for removing and deorbiting space junk.

The article at the link does a terrible job trying to describe this mission. Better to return to a news story from 2016, when Europe first announced this project. The video from that story, embedded below the fold, does an excellent job detailing the four experiments, which are mostly aimed at testing technologies that could be added to satellites that would make either their capture or deorbit easier.

Maybe the most interesting aspect of this mission however is how it got into space. It was launched as part of a SpaceX Dragon cargo mission. It was deployed by NanoRacks, using its privately developed deployment system attached to Japan’s Kibo module.

Launch from ISS means that the satellite’s deployment and orbit were far more controllable than if it had been launched directly into space as a secondary payload during a rocket launch. NanoRacks is selling this approach commercially, and this satellite is the largest deployed by them to date.
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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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