Next-generation launchers

Ideas for future launchers

ESA is justifiably proud of its past achievements such as the very successful Ariane-4 launcher, but knows that if Europe is to continue to be at the forefront of new developments in space then it must look towards the future.

A programme dedicated to the preparation of this future, the Future Launchers Preparatory Programme (FLPP), began in February 2004 and aims to have a Next Generation Launcher (NGL) operational around 2020. This programme is divided into periods: the first covering 2004 to 2006 and the second from 2006 to 2009.

The FLPP will conduct system studies and technology activities, including ground and in-flight tests, to foster new technology capabilities within Europe to enhance the reliability and competitiveness of European launchers.

A challenge for Europe

A cornerstone of Europe’s strategy for launchers is to make optimum use of available resources. The FLPP will harmonise European launcher technological activities and encourage the progressive restructuring of the European launcher industrial sector.

Developing an NGL will challenge the best minds in European universities and industry. Research and technology will be needed in many areas including:

  • launcher system studies to define possible architecture for an NGL
  • in-flight experimentation
  • technologies including rocket propulsion, materials and structures, aerothermodynamics, launcher-health management systems and avionics
Artist's impression of a future launcher

Launch systems The major objective of the FLPP activities for launch systems is to develop technical concepts for launchers in line with Europe’s requirements. The challenge is to guarantee Europe’s independent access to space at an affordable cost while ensuring reliable, flexible and available launch services. A central element of FLPP activities will be to develop concepts for different launch vehicle systems together with the technology needed to realise them.

In-flight experimentation In-flight experimentation activities have capitalised upon Europe’s past experience in the launcher sector, as well as ongoing national and ESA projects, to prepare for a European approach in the frame of FLPP.

The next milestone is the development of an Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) dedicated to validating re-entry technologies. Studies for this are already underway and the IXV is scheduled to make its first orbiting flight, launched by Vega, Europe’s new small launcher, in 2010.

The aim is for the IXV to make a controlled Earth re-entry flight, aided by active aerodynamic control surfaces. IXV will be used to verify and investigate:

  • advanced thermal protection systems and hot structures in-flight performance
  • key aerothermodynamics phenomena
  • innovative materials
  • structural health monitoring and guidance
  • navigation and control issues
Concept of an upper stage engine for a future launcher

Propulsion Propulsion plays a key role in launcher development and provides a major challenge. Designing the main propulsion system is technically complex and also requires interaction with the overall performance and operational capabilities of an NGL, whether expendable or reusable.

Studies of engine systems and tradeoffs with propulsion cycles and propellants, such as liquid oxygen oxidizer together with liquid hydrogen or hydrocarbon fuels, are being coordinated with ongoing studies for the overall launcher system. The critical technologies identified will be tested at both component and subsystem level.

Between 2006 and 2009, technology-demonstration activities will be directed towards developing a demonstrator to test engines of a significant size to prepare for the next milestones in developing a future European launcher.

Concept of a main stage engine for a future launcher

Structures and materials Innovative technology is required to develop the new structures and materials needed for a future launcher. In 2006 work will commence on designing and testing advanced structural concepts that are close enough to maturity to allow them to be used to test expendable or fully or partially reusable launch vehicles.

Major challenges include:

  • reducing overall structural mass
  • increasing structural margins for robustness
  • containment of cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen propellants
  • developing reusable thermal-protection systems in support of the IXV
  • significantly reducing operational costs for inspection and revalidation of reusable structures
  • sustainability
  • providing the best performance at an affordable cost

In meeting these challenges the other essential components of the Future Launchers’ Preparatory Programme will be taken into consideration.

An added bonus of the Programme is that much of the new research and development that goes into developing the European launcher for the future should result in technology spin-offs to improve life on Earth.

Last update: 9 October 2008

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