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Cheaper space rockets

Interview: Sonya Angelica Diehn
January 14, 2015

The European Space Agency's Marc Toussaint tells DW what's on the horizon for future launchers: Reusability and cost-effectiveness - and really big rockets for exploration of space.

Illustration of NASA's Space Launch System
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/NASA

The past year was exciting for space exploration, with NASA's Orion and ESA's Rosetta - not to mention China's moon orbit and a satellite launch in India. And then there's the ever larger role of private space technology companies like Orbital Science and SpaceX.

The most recent space launch occurred this past Saturday (10.01.2015), when SpaceX shot its Dragon craft up to the ISS with its Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX then attempted an unprecedented precision landing back on Earth on a remote platform in the ocean off of Florida.

Although the attempt narrowly failed, the effort is part of a growing trend in space exploration toward refurbishing the multi-million-dollar (or multi-million-euro) rockets. If this succeeds, it could slash future costs of space exploration.

What else is on the horizon for space rockets? DW talked with Marc Toussaint, who works in the ESA's launch program.

SpaceX remote landing platform (AP Photo/SpaceX)
SpaceX described the landing attempt as "trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm"Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/SpaceX

Deutsche Welle: What kind of technology is being used in today's rocket designs?

Marc Toussaint: If you look at rocket technology either being developed or operated from Europe, or by other people in the world - like the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese, India or Japan - you would be amazed to see that most of the technology being used is in a way an old technology, because it's similar to what was developed in the 60s and 70s.

Is there something new coming down the pipeline for the future development of rockets?

Even if you look at the booming exercise of what SpaceX is doing right now, the technology used by SpaceX is also based on the technology from the 60s and 70s. The improvement performed by those people was really to mass-produce very reliable engines, and to demonstrate that they can perform what we call the throttling capability, which means to adjust the thrust of the engine over time. And this is a key step forward for them, because they decided to recover the first stage. This is what's happened last weekend, with the first trial to try and recover the first launch.

This time, the test failed. But what technical aspects are needed to make rocket reusability successful?

The first major breakthrough in technology is the capability to pilot the first stage during this reentry phase. On this aspect, it's clear there will be quite a lot of new technology to be investigated and developed.

Falcon 9 launch in Cape Canaveral January 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Scott Audette)
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is equipped with special fins that allow it to steer back down to EarthImage: Reuters/S. Audette

What SpaceX is doing these days, is using a very reliable engine with the capability to throttle them. But they have also introduced very particular hardware called fins. And these fins are adjustable, orientable on the upper stage to pilot during the different phases of reentry.

With respect to precision, I think most of the technology is already available - if you look at the precision you can achieve with a GPS system, which will allow in the coming tests certainly to land exactly in the middle of the target which they have put on the floating boats over the Atlantic Ocean.

In the detailed analysis of the Saturday launch, it was described as a narrow miss: The rocket did hit the target, but then broke apart. The steering fins had run out of hydraulic fluid right before landing, and this caused the failure. Another attempt will take place next month - do you think this will be successful?

Certainly, the way they are going forward, I'm convinced that next month could be even better than this last trial. They had ground demonstrations, and performed trials last year with at least three landings over the ocean. They could succeed next month. And if not in that trial, then the one after.

Marc Toussaint
Marc Toussaint works in the ESA's launcher programImage: ESA

So it's just a question of fine-tuning these mechanisms in order to attain this success?

Yes, it's fine-tuning all the necessary hardware to perform the landing, plus also fine-tuning the software which is needed to pilot the stage up to the final landing.

Can you describe the rockets that the European Space Agency is currently using?

Today we have two operational versions of Ariane 5. The workhorse is certainly what we call the ECA version, which is used to send most of the satellites on a geosynchronous transfer orbit. We have had 63 consecutive launch successes with all our Ariane 5 launchers - which is quite impressive.

It's very impressive, and I was interested in asking you: What has made Ariane 5 so successful?

I think it's the way we operate Ariane: After each flight, we have a very thorough analysis of the flight, and a very deep analysis of all potential anomalies we could have had on the launcher. We have a double cross-check on production quality, and also on the results of the flight. This helped us a lot to trace most of the critical elements of Ariane 5 over time to guarantee that it's working perfectly.

Ariane 6 has been approved for development this year and is scheduled for a maiden flight in 2020. What is different with Ariane 6?

Ariane 5 is still very expensive to operate. Now the decision has been made to develop a new version which will still be high-performance, but basically recurring-cost optimized. Which means, we want to reduce the cost to produce that launcher to keep it competitive in the market.

Illustration of ESA's Ariane 6 launcher
Ariane 6: The ESA's new workhorse?Image: ESA–D. Ducros, 2014

Would it be accurate to say that SpaceX and such companies have had so much influence on this field that it's determining a new direction for future development?

Oh yes, that's true. And even at the beginning when SpaceX just arrived on that market, many people were laughing and they didn't trust that they would succeed. Now, year after year, we can see the results, and it's for us a very good lesson to learn. We have to adapt and modify the way we develop launchers in the future. And I wouldn't be surprised if sooner or later in Europe, we will also look at how to recover the first stage. And then be in the same situation, that is: cost-competitive on the market.

Looking ahead: What exciting things are happening with space rockets?

The major step forward may come by some new developments, performed by first the Americans, second the Russians, and also China. Those three countries are looking into development of quite huge launchers with a view on man-space activities or exploration activities in the future. There is a push from different countries to stimulate the competition between them in developing these new launchers. Either going back to the moon, or even forward to asteroids, and in the future going to Mars.

Virgin Galactic's White Knight Two craft
Virgin Galactic's White Knight Two is intended to carry tourists into spaceImage: AP

The development of launchers in the future can also be linked to the boom in the space tourist market. And of course when the real space tourist market explodes, we'll have to have very affordable launchers to make the cost per individual low enough to stimulate the market. This is a view for five or six years from now.

Marc Toussaint, who is Belgian, works as an Ariane rapport officer with the European Space Agency in Paris.

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