Sunday, June 20

ESA’s ‘hot potatoes’: territorial distribution and the reuse of rockets

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The Austrian Josef Aschbacher (59) had to face the press, for the first time wearing the purple diving suit, just minutes after being officially confirmed as future new director of the European Space Agency. Although the news had been leaked days before.

It is true that the still director of ESA’s programs for Earth observation, based in Italy, he was quick to note that he has nothing to say for now. He will assume from July 1, 2021, for four years, the position to which the Spanish astronaut Pedro Duque officially aspired, now with the position of minister.

Until then, Aschbacher sums up his future boss mission in two verbs: “First, introduce myself to the employees and tell them about my plans.” Later, he will talk about a job that “is an honor, a great challenge and a great job with a lot to do.” He will then present his “2025 agenda” and his “vision for the next couple of years.”

The future director refused to answer questions from various media, including D + I, condensed by the moderator of the meeting, who asked him to detail a little his ideas for the development line of the Space Agency.

And that the still acting director, Jan Wörner, had given rise, commenting previously that, during the “very intense” two days of the ESA Council, in addition to “taking very important decisions”, he he had taken the opportunity to speak with Aschbacher about “anticipating what the next 10 years should be like.”

Wörner clarifies that “10 years is a long time and nobody knows what will happen next year, but the general director has to offer the Council each year his idea of ​​what they will be like.”

A period in which Copernicus Earth observation programs, telecommunications activities and scientific research will be especially important (Dark matter will be studied). And, of course, the Galileo program, with services of all kinds from space, including satellite navigation, which will offer greater precision than GPS, at least until the American system launches its second generation. In addition to the interaction with the European Union, for now ESA’s main client.

Although many believe that the Space Agency is an EU body, the reality is that it has 22 member states. That is to say, Not all those from the EU are there, nor are all those from the EU, because Switzerland and Norway are included, that have association agreements with the Union. In addition, Canada has a seat on the Council, through a cooperation agreement with ESA; Latvia and Slovenia, although members of the EU, are associate members of ESA; and six other EU members (Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Lithuania, Malta and Slovakia), have cooperation agreements.

Outgoing director Wörner will still get the hot potato from UK lace after Brexit.

Today he is a member of ESA as a transitory member of the EU, but if he were to leave this by the brave, without an agreement, within a week he would not have the appropriate status to remain the same in the Agency. Yes, I could establish a cooperation agreement.

Britain’s departure “would be a problem with 100% EU-funded programs”admits Wörner, assuming that “the relationship with the European Union will be critical in the coming years”, to repeat his message from the previous week on “efficiency” and “commercialization” of space.

ESA faces two challenges: its complex structure as a multinational organization, with not easy internal balances, and the reality of the global market generated by competition from private companies.

The first question is reflected in the “discussion on new policies for the selection of astronauts. There is, of course, a question of nationality. We are looking for European astronauts, but we cannot ignore that they have nationalities. “The next call, still undated, is scheduled in 2021.

The last promotion is from 2010, whose six graduates form the active astronaut corps, together with the German Mathias Maurer, who like them entered the 2009 call, from which Alexander Gerst, also German, came out.

At that time Maurer was not accepted into the promotion (perhaps because two German candidates came together?), But he did start working as a crew support engineer. In 2015 he was admitted to the astronaut corps and next year, in the fall, he will fly for the first time to the International Space Station (ISS) in a Space X Dragon capsule.

That is the framework of the second challenge for ESA: the balance between European industrial interests and the reality of the commercial ‘New Space’. Wörner, who claims to have “helped European industry survive the strong impact of the corona crisis, accelerating this year the payment of bills” (from 26 to 10 days), also stressed that the Council has “released money to complete the Arianne 6 rocket, for its maiden flight.” A debut that is planned for the second quarter of 2022, already with a notable delay from the first forecast that it would be in 2020.

The Arianne 6 launcher is a European effort led by French industry, since its approval in 2014, in which ESA will have invested some 3.8 billion. The extra money contributed now, according to Daniel Neuenschwander, director of space transportation, is 218 million. France has subscribed 100 million and Germany, 54, as main funders.

When the Arianne 6 is operational, the cost of each launch is estimated to be 75 million, in the version of the A62 rocket with two thrusters, and up to 115 million, in the heavy version A64, with four thrusters.

Meanwhile, hehe private companies SpaceX (of Elon Musk) and Blue Origin (of Jeff Bezos) lower the prices of their launches with reusable rockets. So D + I asked Wörner if it wouldn’t be financially smarter to go for that option. Renting this type of rockets, which is already used by NASA and ESA itself will take advantage of next year to send its astronauts Pesquet and Maurer on missions carried by Falcon launchers and Dragon capsules to the ISS, where two Europeans will meet for the first time.

“It seems like a simple question, which could take me an hour to answer and I would still leave some points open …”, Wörner responds. “Reusability is certainly a great thing and Elon Musk seems to be having great success. And maybe Jeff too. But you have to see how that fits with the European market. We are also looking for reusability, not just for rockets … “.

At this point the answer begins to become entangled with that ‘European reality’ and the aspiration to be a space power: “Let’s assume that we are going to pay ten launches per year. We could say twenty, but let’s calculate with ten. And that we have the possibility of using a rocket ten times. That means we would build only one new rocket a year. And having the necessary industrial structure would make it very expensive. Maybe ten times more expensive, or six times. So it is a situation to answer yes and no. Our market is different. Of course we could go to the global market, but what we have to try in the global market is to get projects. The more the merrier. “

Neuenschwander puts it more clearly: “We need a European solution for European needs and When we talk about reuse, we also have to attend to the shares, which are very important to define the return policy and we must take this fully into account“It refers to the money that returns to each State in the form of contracts for their companies, counting what was previously contributed for ESA programs, or some specific project (that is why France contributes more to complete Arianne 6).

“But of course we are also working on it,” adds the director of space transportation. “We have a certain number of elements in development. For example, a couple of days ago I signed a contract for the chemistry of the initial phase of a demonstrator, for the reuse of the first stage [de un lanzador]”.

“And going further,” he concludes “we are looking at all aspects of a transportation system, not a launcher, for a development that would give Europe the full operational capacity of a vehicle that could be launched into a low orbit, stay in it for a couple of months, return to the ground, be reconditioned and fly again. Up to five times. ” An image that evokes that of a space shuttle like the American Shuttle, or the Soviet one that was limited to doing a brief test flight without crew.

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