A video from the Ariane group provides a brief glimpse of the future: a few minutes after the launch of the Ariane rocket, it deploys a large satellite in Earth orbit. It then releases the so-called kick stage, a small additional rocket stage with additional satellites that take off and move into other orbits in order to place them there. In 2024, the scene called Astris is to be used for the first time and project the asteroid probe Hera into the depths of space in order to test the possibilities of asteroid defense in a project by the space agencies Esa and Nasa.
The Ariane group has been entrusted by Esa with the contract for the development and construction of the kick stage. Budget: 90 million euros. In addition to the Rostock medium-sized company RST and the listed Austrian aerospace company FACC, the Berlin-based start-up PTS is also present as a supplier. The founders, who had developed a lunar module as PT Scientists before their interim insolvency, can contribute their expertise in avionics. This includes the operating system, flight software, and electronics. “This gives us the opportunity to certify all of our avionics in space,” says founder Robert Boehme.
The consortium will build at least four kick stages per year. “The additional optional level extends Ariane’s profile,” explains German boss Pierre Godart. Thus, double starts are possible in order to be able to control several more orbits. This is of interest, for example, for Internet satellites which have to be placed in different orbits. And electrically powered satellites can get Astris into orbit faster.
Cooperation with start-ups must bring new ideas to the company
While the kick stage is under development in Bremen, the multi-ignition Berta engine comes from Ottobrunn near Munich and Lampoldshausen. “This regrouping of our skills strengthens the role of Germany in the construction of Ariane 6”, specifies Godart. And there are already considerations for using the kickstage after its use. “This is an interesting potential, especially since there is still enough fuel and energy available,” says Robert Boehme of PTS, “for example as a technology platform or to specifically burn waste space “.
Godart welcomes such suggestions. “We work with start-ups to bring new ideas to the business,” he says. “We may have the technology and the know-how, but we don’t necessarily have to act like start-ups. Especially since the Ariane group is not only impatiently awaiting the first launch of Ariane 6, which could be delayed until the end of 2022 due to the latest tests and the Corona, but is already working on technologies for future missiles. This includes concepts for replacing solid fuels with more environmentally friendly liquid oxygen and hydrogen. And Esa didn’t approve € 130 million for the Prometheus reusable methane engine until May. It could also be 90% cheaper than the previous Vulcan engine thanks to 3D printing. “We don’t know yet if we can do it, but even 80 percent would be a word,” Godart says.
With the Themis project, the company plans to test the vertical landing of a rocket stage soon, just as its American competitor Space-X did. The space agency is also paying 15 million euros for a higher level in lighter carbon. The OHB subsidiary MT Aerospace and Ariane Group are developing them to be able to transport two more tonnes of payload and thus reduce costs.
Different market conditions apply to Space-X
But Godart doesn’t want to copy Space-X. “The fact that Ariane 6 is already obsolete because it cannot be reused is just not true,” he says. Even if the ESA countries decided to rebuild it in 2014. He feels confirmed by the fact that almost all of the first 14 Ariane 6 rockets have already been sold. “We would make the same decision today because we have completely different market conditions in Europe than in the United States.” By this he means that there are around 25 institutional flights from NASA and other clients each year, but only a fifth of them in Europe. Ariane Group is 70 percent dependent on commercial orders, Space-X can drive “extremely aggressive pricing” with just 30 percent. “If you launch a few missiles and make them reusable, you build one or two a year,” says Godart. “But with that, you haven’t used your production at full capacity and you’ll have quality issues. It’s not economically viable.” Nevertheless, the Ariane group must master this technology “because the market can evolve and change”.
Such ideas can be found in studies of a space transport system from the 1930s, which ESA entrusted to three consortia, including the Ariane group. “We need to think even more about what is important besides costs, reusability and competitiveness,” says Daniel Neuenschwander, director of Esa. He can also imagine a rocket without CO₂ – in the spirit of the EU’s “Green Deal”. But he also pleads for a more efficient organization of the construction of Ariadne and the little sister Vega in Italy. “We know the strengths and weaknesses of current systems and have a clear idea of how we can optimize the industrial structure,” he says, without giving details.
“We need to become even faster and more efficient in building the European launcher,” says Godart, adding that industry and space agencies must join forces. But it is important to include the “high level of creativity and engineers from many cultures” – “this is part of the roots of Europe”. The best example is Airbus: “They are successful with multiple sites and cultures. Godart would prefer more specialization of production plants – without layoffs.