About Future Launchers Preparatory Programme (FLPP)

What is it?

The objective of the Future Launchers Preparatory Programme (FLPP) is to help determine how Europe maintains and strengthens its independent access in space into the long-term.

The Programme has been investing in development of technological and industrial capabilities in all main space transportation areas since 2003. It does this to prepare for the decision due to be made on Europe's best next-generation launch system, able to meet future institutional needs while also maintaining competitiveness in the commercial launcher market.

The FLPP 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:

  • Launchers – The FLPP is 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 character and design of Europe's Next-Generation Launcher (NGL)
  • Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) - This is a test vehicle to flight-qualify several key re-entry systems and technologies necessary for multiple space applications ranging from future launchers to human transportation. The first IXV flight is foreseen around 2012.

Enabling launcher technologies are matured through on-ground testing progressing to in-flight experiments to increase their Technology Readiness Level (TRL). The design, analysis, manufacturing and testing of test-articles, engineering model 'breadboards' and single enabling technology demonstrators are performed as intermediate steps prior to an overall integrated demonstration. Planned demonstrations include:

  • High Thrust Engine (HTE) Demonstrator – which targets the progressive integration of staged combustion of innovative liquid hydrogen and methane technologies at subsystem and system levels, targeting increased performance
  • Solid Propulsion Demonstrator – which includes a flexible platform to perform hot firing of different propellant types, loading and configurations, and address the pressure oscillation phenomenon
  • Cryogenic Upper Stage Technologies (CUST) – intended to mature technologies through ground and in-flight testing mainly related to engine re-ignition and long coasting phase requirements
  • Structures and materials – are being addressed as challenges on the road to the NGL, targeting a decrease in structural mass with special attention to cryogenic fuel containment and thermal protection systems. Technology demonstration projects are building the maturity of novel materials and structures with the potential to achieve this.

Why is the Future Launchers Preparatory Programme needed?

A new rocket is not built in a day. The first system studies of what became ESA's Ariane 5 took place as early as 1977, with the launcher's first test flight only occurring in 1996, following a solid decade of development. The launcher only achieved operational status in 1999.

Today the Ariane 5 is a solid success, commanding half the global commercial launch market and undergoing progressive modification and performance enhancements. But this process of evolution can only extend so far: eventually a next generation of launcher will be required to respond to Europe's future space access needs in the same way the Ariane 5 succeeded the Ariane 4.

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...the FLPP opens up new design possibilities...

By identifying new launcher technologies and progressing them to higher states of technical readiness, the FLPP opens up new design possibilities and strengthens European industry's technical competencies in the field.

In addition its outcomes will allow policy makers to make a better informed choice between what is likely to be a pivotal strategic decision: either to pursue more advanced versions of Europe's currently operational family of launchers or to aim for an entirely new launch vehicle design.

The work of the FLPP is enabling a weighing up of the opportunities and risks of different launcher concepts and associated technologies. And 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 commence the demanding work of turning the chosen design into reality.

How is the Programme implemented?

The Future Launchers Preparatory Programme is an ESA programme which Member States subscribe to on an optional basis. The programme has been structured in a series of partially overlapping periods:

Period-1 (2004-2006) – 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(2006-2009) – System studies on reusable and expendable launch configurations plus key technology development, and IXV design finalised. And, as a common element of several potential applications for upper stages, a re-ignitable 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 the baseline for the preparatory phase of next phase Ariane 5 development beyond the currently flying ECA version.

Period-2 Step 2 (2009-2013) – Completion of systems studies on expendable launch configurations. The IXV qualified and flight model manufactured. Progression through ground demonstrators, in particular for high thrust engine, in-flight experiments and cryogenic upper stage technologies.

Period 3 (2013-2015) – Flight of the IXV on an ESA Vega launcher. Preparation and performance of Integrated High-Thrust Engine demonstrator tests and other key technology developments, enabling a final recommendation to be made and start of Next Generation Launcher development. Preliminary design of the selected vehicle concept.

What benefits does the Programme deliver?

...safeguards Europe's guaranteed access to space into the long term.

The Future Launchers Preparatory Programme safeguards Europe's guaranteed access to space into the long term. Its activities ensure our continent will continue to have effective and economic launchers at its disposal into the conceivable future.

Early-stage technology development will save both time and money when it comes to assembling the Next-Generation Launcher, and confirm that will be built around thoroughly mastered technologies rather than best guesses or leaps in the dark.

Whatever the final form of the Next-Generation Launcher turns out to be, the FLPP's sustained investment in its underlying technologies should greatly decrease the cost and difficulty of reaching orbit, responding to institutional and commercial market requirements and bringing space closer to Earth as a result.

And of course any breakthroughs that are made in launcher technology also become available for use in the short or medium terms – as in the example of the Programme's re-ignitable expander cycle upper engine, now earmarked for use with forthcoming Ariane 5s - to be applied to Europe's current rocket family.

How to get involved?

Most FLPP procurements takes place through direct negotiation at prime level, with a process of competition occurring at subcontractor level. In these cases, invitations to Tender are published on ESA's EMITS website, open to all firms located in participating Member States.

Last update: 26 January 2015

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