qu’est-ce que c’est? —
“I have no problem saying we didn’t invent anything.”
Late last week, the European rocket maker Ariane Group and the French space agency CNES announced the creation of an “acceleration platform” to speed development of future launch vehicles. The initiative, called ArianeWorks, would be a place where “teams work together in a highly flexible environment, open to new players and internationally.”
“In this era of NewSpace and in the context of fierce competition, ArianeWorks will accelerate innovation at grassroots level, in favor of mid-tier firms and start-ups, with commitment to reducing costs a major priority,” a news release sent to Ars states.
As part of the announcement, the organizations released a promotional video for the group’s first step—a so-called Themis demonstrator. The goal of this project is to build a multiple-engine first-stage rocket that launches vertically and lands near the launch site. The rocket will be powered by Europe’s Prometheus engine, a reusable liquid oxygen and methane engine that may cost as little as $1 million to build.
The new video is striking because of how similar the Themis demonstrator of “breakthrough technologies” looks to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Even the engines, with a thrust of 100 tons each, are similar to the output of the Merlin 1D that powers the Falcon 9 rocket. (One difference is that the Merlin 1D engine uses kerosene fuel, instead of methane).
The promotional video shows a rocket taking off, and then jumps to a landing, complete with grid fins and four landing legs. A new rocket then takes off as another one lands—similar to concepts SpaceX has discussed for its next generation-rocket and Starship.
Sure, we’re copying
To be fair, the European rocket builders have not sought to hide their emulation of SpaceX. During a presentation last year, the head of the French space agency’s launch vehicle program, Jean Marc-Astorg, was asked about this. As part of its development program, Ariane and CNES are also planning a “Callisto” hopper vehicle that is similar the Grasshopper test vehicle SpaceX flew in 2012 and 2013 to demonstrate vertical landing capabilities.
“Callisto is Grasshopper,” Astorg said at the time. “The Chinese are also building a similar prototype, I have no problem saying we didn’t invent anything.”
The Callisto and Themis development projects are contingent upon funding from European governments, of course. Presently, Ariane Group is nearing completion of the Ariane 6 rocket, expected to make its first flight in 2020. This vehicle is expendable, but officials said it will be cost-competitive with the Falcon 9 and other rockets offering commercial launch services.
These development projects are part of Europe’s effort to develop a booster than comes after the Ariane 6, and it’s unlikely to debut before 2028 or 2030. Europe has a long heritage in building quality rockets—it was the first to market commercial launches—and reliably delivering satellites to geostationary space for big telecoms. But in this case, it will be playing catch-up.
A decade from now, SpaceX will almost certainly have perfected reusable spaceflight with its Falcon 9 rocket and may be offering commercial missions on the much larger Starship. Blue Origin, too, should have considerable experience with its reusable New Glenn rocket, and China will probably have one or more reusable launchers.
Listing image by Ariane Works