France puts a boost

Faced with the threat of the US SpaceX satellite launch company owned by the billionaire Elon Musk in particular, France is putting itself in order of battle not to be outdone by the competition in the field of reusable launchers … even if today the economic model has not yet been demonstrated. But operators of all kinds, including SES, want at all costs to reduce the costs of access to space to develop new markets, hitherto held back by launch prices.

"In a context of heightened competition, CNES and ONERA (the aerospace research center, editor's note) have decided to pool their skills to consider the feasibility of future reusable launchers "CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall said in a joint statement from the National Center for Space Studies and ONERA on Friday. On its website, ONERA stated that "in order for Europe to continue to have a long-term launcher that remains economically viable and therefore independent access to space, it is time to study and prepare a launcher new step in lowering costs, beyond the progress of Ariane 6 ".

Towards a demonstrator?

It is within this framework that CNES and ONERA have teamed up to conduct a study on the feasibility of a first stage of a reusable launcher. At the same time, they are thinking about technical elements which are decisive for the economic validity of such a system, such as recovery, return and maintenance. The two partners signed a letter of intent to launch this 6-month study. It will identify solutions and their technical viability as well as elements of reflection for a demonstration logic on the ground and in flight.

This study could ultimately be the prerequisite for a demonstrator program, which could be "subsequently conducted in a European or international cooperation framework", ONERA explained on its website.

A two-part study

It aims to propose technical solutions "to make a first launcher stage capable of a return to its launch padCNES and ONERA explained that this part of the study will address the various parameters related to the return of the first stage, notably the preliminary design of the vehicle, the aerodynamics, the thermal, the return trajectory and the qualities flight. "A phase of preliminary studies has already started"said the two partners.

As part of the second component, ONERA's multi-physics simulation platform for energetics and propulsion CEDRE will be used to evaluate "the thermal flows and the forces applied to the stage during the return when the latter uses only the thrust of its rocket engines to brake", pointed out the research center on his site.

This study "will see ONERA implement its multidisciplinary skills alongside CNES to help define and evaluate the aerospace vehicles and systems of the future," said ONERA CEO Bruno Sainjon.

The two partners already have the experience of a close collaboration, as part of the preliminary phases of the Pre-X project, demonstrator of atmospheric reentry vehicle, then selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) as a demonstration project or as part of the demonstrator of the Eole aircraft in connection with the CNES project Perseus (CNES student project for European space research, university and science). Patented in 2012, this experimental aircraft is studying the feasibility of replacing the first stage of a conventional launcher with an automated and reusable airborne vehicle.