FLPP preparing for Europe's next-generation launcher

ESA is preparing new launch systems to respond to Europe’s future institutional needs and to continue at the forefront of new developments in space.

ESA's programme dedicated to the preparation of this future, the Future Launchers Preparatory Programme (FLPP), began in 2003. It oversees system studies and research activities to foster new technologies capable of delivering performance and reliability coupled with reduced operational costs.

FLPP is instrumental in the European strategy for access to space, and aims to:

  • Identify and prepare the system competence and technology for development with the aim of confining launcher time-to-market within 5 years, reducing recurring cost and development risk, while keeping long-term industry competitiveness.
  • Promote reusability of existing and new technologies to reduce development costs globally. 
  • Perform system studies to assess evolutions of operational launchers, future launcher architectures, advanced concepts, select technology and elaborate technology requirements.
  • Safeguard critical European industrial capabilities for the safe exploitation of the current launchers and guaranteed access to space.
  • Develop environmentally friendly technologies.

Key technology areas include:

  • Keeping a lightweight upper stage,
  • Low-cost structures,
  • More electric-based launchers,
  • Mastering the environments of launch,
  • Orbit injection strategies,
  • Robust structures and design,
  • Ease of manufacture, operation and integration,
  • Reusability of existing and new technologies,
  • Green launch systems.

How is the programme implemented?

ESA Member States subscribe to FLPP on an optional basis. Of the 20 ESA Member States, 14 are participating.

The programme is structured in a series of partially overlapping periods:

  • Period 1 (2004–06): studies of reusable launch vehicle concepts driving technology developments carried out and identification of evolutions to reduce expendable launch vehicle costs.
  • Period 2 Step 1 (2006–09): system studies on reusable and expendable launch configurations plus development and maturation of key demonstrators.
  • Period 2 Step 2 (2009-13): completion of systems studies on expendable launch configurations; progression through ground demonstrators, in particular for Expander demonstrator/Vinci-2, flight experiments and cryogenic upper-stage technologies.
  • Period 3 (2013-18): following decisions made on Ariane 6, FLPP is focusing on key technology developments and on enabling further integrated testing using demonstrators with application to multiple launchers (Ariane, Vega).

What are the benefits?

FLPP safeguards Europe’s guaranteed access to space into the long term and ensures it will continue to have effective and economic launchers at its disposal into the conceivable future. 

Early-stage technology development saves both time and money when it comes to assembling future launch vehicles, and confirms that it will use thoroughly mastered technologies. 

FLPP’s sustained investment in its underlying technologies will greatly reduce the cost and challenge of reaching orbit, responding to institutional and commercial market requirements and bringing space closer to Earth as a result, easing access to space. 

Breakthroughs made in launcher technology will also become available for use in the short or medium terms. As a common element of several potential applications for upper stages, a reignitable expander cycle engine (where fuel is preheated before combustion for extra efficiency) has been matured through extensive engineering activities and test campaigns. This engine – the first closed-cycle engine in Europe – is now earmarked for use with forthcoming Ariane launchers beyond the current ECA version.

Paving the way

FLPP carries out work on both technical and programmatic aspects that provide the sound elements to make the right decisions to prepare for new launch vehicles or launcher evolutions. 

The programme implements a system-driven approach: technology requirements are derived from the launch system concepts under study, which allows the anticipating technology to mature, which in turn, verifies the assumptions made at system level. 

The programme focuses on integrated demonstrators which are the most efficient way to increase the readiness level of new launcher technologies, radically shorten future launcher development time and address system-level capabilities. These integrated demonstrators respond to the short- and medium-term milestones of the programme. 

This step-by-step approach strengthens Europe’s technical competencies in the field and brings together European industrial teams to develop identified end products, from their definition to their manufacturing and testing. 

FLPP work is weighing up the opportunities and risks of different launcher concepts and associated technologies. Once the final decision is made, the studies already completed on underlying technologies should give Europe's rocket builders a valuable head-start as they begin the demanding work of turning the chosen design into reality. 

The programme is structured in three elements: 

  • Study of evolutions of existing launchers and advanced launch system concepts,
  • Selection and maturation of technologies,
  • Definition, development and tests of integrated demonstrators.

Evolutions of existing launchers and advanced launch system concept studies

A launch vehicle is a complex system conceived to deliver a payload to a given orbit by providing the right altitude and velocity for orbit injection. This has to be achieved at the minimum launch cost possible and with the maximum reliability and overall quality of launch service. 

Launcher systems activities aim to identify and study advanced vehicle concepts and possible evolutions of operational launchers that meet top-level mission requirements, and fulfil both technical and programmatic aspects. 

These activities regularly integrate the updated maturity state of technologies.

Technology maturation

Technology activities aim to mature enabling technologies through ground testing or flight experimentation. The objective of the technology maturation activities is to reach TRL 6, which is considered to be the adequate level to mitigate risks before entering in a firm development.

Specification, development and tests of integrated demonstrators

While technology maturation increases individual technology readiness levels, it becomes necessary to integrate different technologies on a single platform to address critical system integration competence and predevelop candidate systems. 

This can raise the Integration Readiness Level (IRL), where IRL 4 is considered to be the adequate level to mitigate risks before entering in a firm development.

Technology Development and Verification Plan (TDVP)

The TDVP establishes the link between system, demonstrators and technologies and ensures consistency between these three elements using: 

  • Top-down approach: system concepts define the technical requirements for technologies.
  • Bottom-up approach: system concepts benefit from promising technology maturation.

The plan also highlights how some technologies could be shared by several launch vehicles. 

Technologies and demonstrators cover the traditional domains necessary for space transportation systems, in particular: 

  • Liquid, solid and hybrid propulsion,
  • Materials, processes and structures,
  • Avionics and guidance, navigation and control,
  • Cryogenic technologies, thermal control,
  • Structures and architectures,
  • Systems,
  • Ground segment,
  • Avionics and pyrotechnics.

Last update: 17 November 2014

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