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ESA Sees European Space ‘Revolution’ In 2011

January 15, 2011

Europe is set to add two new types of rocket to its launch fleet in French Guiana, in a move that is being hailed as a space “revolution,” European Space Agency (ESA) head Jean-Jacques Dordain said Friday.

ESA’s Ariane 5 heavy launcher will be joined by Russia’s medium-sized Soyuz, and by a new European-designed rocket, Vega, for smaller payloads.

“2011 will be the year of the launchers,” Dordain said at a press conference at ESA headquarters. This represents a major change in the way ESA will conduct its space activities.

Dordain told BBC News that everyone might be surprised at how complex an undertaking of this magnitude would be. “For 30 years we have exploited one launcher, the best launcher in the world, Ariane – but it was one launcher,” he explained.

“From this year, we will exploit three launchers in parallel – Ariane, Soyuz and Vega. It will introduce some constraints because the traffic will be much heavier from [the spaceport], and I’m not so sure we’ve yet totally understood the constraints which are linked to the exploitation of three launchers instead of one,” he said.

Dordain cautioned that both Soyuz and Vega had to undergo testing before being certified for operation in French Guiana, and that ESA faced the challenge of having to master three different rocket types at the same time.

Although, “By the end of 2011, ESA will not look like it does today. It is a revolution for Europe,” Dordain declared.

ESA’s Ariane 5 can place up to 10 tons in low Earth orbit, while the capacity of Soyuz is only about 3.5 tons and Vega only 1.7 tons.

Having a choice of rockets will give ESA greater flexibility in deciding which one will be best used for its payloads and will widen the operational menu for Arianespace, a joint venture that is the world’s biggest launcher of commercial satellites.

ESA is also looking forward with the upcoming launch of its second robot freighter, named the Johannes Kepler, to the International Space Station (ISS) on February 15.

Other scheduled launches include the first two operational satellites in Europe’s Galileo system, a rival of US Global Positioning System (GPS), scheduled for August-September launches by Soyuz, said Dordain.

ESA, which currently has 18 member states, is set to admit Romania as number 19, and Israel is scheduled to sign a cooperation agreement as well.

Seventy-five percent of ESA’s 5.35-billion-dollar budget comes from its member states and 20 percent comes from the European Union (EU), with which ESA has a partnership agreement.

Most of ESA’s budget goes toward Earth observation missions, scientific exploration of the Solar System, its Galileo navigation system, and manned missions to the ISS. ESA sends astronauts to and from the ISS using Russian and US transport. It does not have its own manned flight capability.

The new launch facility in French Guiana has been constructed especially for the Soyuz, allowing the Russian-built vehicle to shift some of its operations from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The launch complex will have its qualification review in April with the expectation that the first Soyuz launch will occur between August 15 and September 15. Soyuz is planned to carry Galileo into orbit.

Vega will use the old Ariane 1, 2, and 3 launch pads, which have been renovated for that purpose. Both Vega and the launch pad will need to go through the review process before being cleared for launch. A maiden flight for Vega has yet to be set, but ESA expects it to be during the second half of the year.

Because Vega is a brand new design, the payload will be small, inexpensive scientific spacecraft rather than high-value commercial and institutional ventures.

The South American spaceport is going to be very busy once all three rockets become operational in that launch facility. Launches could be occurring at the rate of about one per month in the near future.

Arianespace is currently losing money and has been looking for a cash injection from European governments. ESA member states wanted more information first on the financial status of the company and a clearer understanding of the costs of building Ariane 5 before committing to an aid package, said Dordain.

“The member-states are ready to make the exploitation sustainable, not because this is a commercial market. This is not the objective,” Dordain stressed.

“The objective is to make sure the Ariane 5 is there for their own government needs. That should not be misunderstood. This is not a contribution of the member-states to a commercial business; this is a contribution of the member-states to the guarantee of access to space,” he told BBC News.

The matter will come up at the March Council Meeting of ESA. The same meeting will also need to resolve European funding for the ISS.

Although ESA is philosophically committed to the extension of ISS operations from 2015 to 2020, its member states have yet to put a financial goal in place to make that happen.

Image Caption: Artist’s impression of a Soyuz liftoff at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. Credits: ESA – D. Ducros

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