Europe Urged To Develop Launch Vehicle

By Michael A. Taverna

LES MUREAUX, France - EADS Astrium officials are urging that Europe begin preparing a design for a medium-lift launch vehicle that could provide an eventual replacement for the Russian-built Soyuz.

For the medium term at least, it is clear that European's medium-lift fortunes will continue to ride on the improved Soyuz 2, which will begin operating at the end of this year from a new 344 million euro ($450 million) launch pad that is nearing completion in Kourou, French Guiana. Thanks to the extra lift afforded by this near-equatorial location, Soyuz 2 will be capable of orbiting most of the European Space Agency's Earth observation satellites, as well as small telecom spacecraft up to 3.2 metric tons.

Soyuz will complement Europe's heavy-lift Ariane 5 ECA and its new Vega light launch vehicle, due to enter service early next year.

"But in the long run, it would be surprising if Europe didn't have its own [midsize] launcher, Astrium Space Transportation Division CEO Alain Charmeau said recently at the division's main development and production facility here. For one thing, he said, Russia is already working on a two-stage follow-on to Soyuz, for which contractors were selected early this month, and there's no guarantee that Russia will be willing to share this capability indefinitely (AW&ST April 13, p. 39).

Other countries are developing new medium-lift launch vehicles, too, notably India with its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk III, due to make its first flight in 2010, and China with its modular Long March 5, targeted for introduction in 2014. "Our competitors are moving, we have to react," Charmeau says.

Another motivation is maintaining Europe's launcher engineering capability. The French government is studying the possibility of funding future launch vehicle design work through a 2.4 billion euro aerospace and defense economic stimulus package approved at the end of last year. However, other projects will also be competing for scarce funding, including technology programs to prepare the eventual successor to Ariane 5.

The CEO did not mention specific designs, but Astrium engineers have been exploring various concepts that could draw partially on new technological building blocks currently in development. One features a two-stage liquid propulsion rocket with a liquid oxygen/methane first stage, a liquid oxygen/hydrogen second stage and two to four solid boosters. Another would use a three-stage design with two solid fuel first stages and an upper cryogenic stage.

LOX/LH technology would utilize the Vinci cryogenic engine and variable nozzle being designed for the Ariane 5 ME, a more powerful reignitable version of the Ariane 5 that is expected to be introduced after 2016. The solid boosters would be derived from the new P80 solid rocket motor developed for Vega. However, the 340 metric ton thrust LOX/methane engines would have to be designed from scratch, although proposed upper stage designs for a future Vega upgrade could serve as a starting point (AW&ST Oct. 15, 2007, p. 34).

A notional schedule, Charmeau suggests, would see preliminary definition kicked off at the next ESA ministerial summit in 2011 so risk reduction and demonstration work can be approved at the following summit in 2014. The objective would be to have the new rocket ready for service in the 2020-2025 time frame, about the time Russia's Soyuz replacement is expected to be ready.

Artist's concept of Soyuz 2: ESA

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