FLPP preparing for Europe's next-generation launcher

ESA is preparing new launch systems to respond better 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 high performance and reliability coupled with reduced operational costs.

Its major fields of activity include:

NGL concept
  • Developing various launch vehicle system concepts and identifying the technologies required to make them possible. This activity will form the basis of the crucial decision to be made on the characteristics and design of Europe's Next Generation Launcher (NGL).
  • Developing the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) - This test will flight-qualify several key reentry systems and technologies.

How is the programme implemented?

ESA Member States subscribe to FLPP on an optional basis. 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, and IXV design finalised.
  • Period 2 - Step 2 (2009-13): completion of systems studies on expendable launch configurations; IXV qualified, flight model manufactured and flight on ESA’s Vega launcher; progression through ground demonstrators, in particular for high thrust engine, flight experiments and cryogenic upper-stage technologies.
  • Period 3 (2013-15): Following decisions made on Ariane 6, FLPP is focussing on key technology developments and on enabling further integrated testing using demonstrators with application to multiple launchers (Ariane, Vega).

FLPP is an ESA optional programme. Out of the 18 ESA Member States, 14 are participating to FLPP.

What are the benefits?

The Future Launchers Preparatory Programme 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 the NGL, and confirms that it will use thoroughly mastered technologies.

The FLPP's sustained investment in its underlying technologies should greatly decrease 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 that are made in launcher technology may 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 5 launchers beyond the currently flying ECA version.

Paving the way for NGL

Many scenarios on the evolution of the European launcher sector have been studied. The need for an NGL is a common aspect in all of these scenarios; the only difference between them is the initial operational capability of the launcher.

FLPP carries out work on both technical and programmatic aspects that provide the sound elements to make the right decisions to prepare for the NGL.

The programme implements a system-driven approach: technology requirements are derived from the launch system concepts under study, which allow anticipating technology maturity.

The programme focuses on integrated demonstrators which are the most efficient way to increase the readiness level of new launcher technologies and to 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.

The 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 at maturating 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.

This allows to raise the Integration Readiness Level (IRL), where IRL 2 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 used for several NGL configurations.

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

  • Propulsion
  • Materials, processes and structures
  • Avionics and guidance, navigation and control
  • Propellant management devices
  • Thermal control

Last update: 11 March 2014

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