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ESA, Germany Split on Testing Ariane 5 ME Upper Stage in U.S.

Technicians prepare a full-scale upper-stage rocket engine for testing in NASA's Plumbrook Spacecraft Propulsion Research Facility. Credit: NASA photo

WASHINGTON — Following the European Space Agency’s (ESA) decision to fly an upgraded version of its workhorse Ariane 5 rocket by 2018, ESA and NASA officials plan to meet in early January to discuss testing the launcher’s new restartable cryogenic upper stage at NASA’s Plum Brook Station  in northwestern Ohio.

However, Johann-Dietrich Woerner, the head of the German Aerospace Center, or DLR, said his agency would like to run those tests itself, provided that a new facility comparable to the massive Plum Brook’s B-2 Spacecraft Propulsion Research Facility — which NASA bills as “the world’s only facility capable of testing full-scale upper-stage launch vehicles and rocket engines under simulated high-altitude conditions” — can be built at DLR’s existing rocket test site in Lampoldshausen, Germany.

At a Nov. 30 Capitol Hill breakfast hosted by the Space Transportation Association, Woerner said DLR is competing to bring the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (ME) upper-stage tests to Lampoldshausen, despite ESA’s preference to test at NASA’s one-of-a-kind facility.

“ESA is in favor of going to the United States,” Woerner said at the breakfast. “I, as head of the research center DLR, of course, would be happy if we could test it at DLR. The advantage of using the site in the United States is that you have it already. We don’t have it at Lampoldshausen at DLR, but we would be eager to build one for it.”

An ESA spokeswoman said the agency will not settle the issue until next year.

“Testing the upper stage of Ariane 5 ME at NASA’s Plum Brook is still an option being considered,” Brigitte Kolmsee, a Paris-based ESA spokeswoman, said Nov. 30. “The decision to proceed or not with this is going to be expected in the second half of 2013.”

NASA's Spacecraft Propulsion Facility (B-2)

There is one hitch to testing the Ariane 5 ME’s upper stage in the United States: NASA’s B-2 facility, built during the mid-1960s and last used for rocket propulsion testing in the 1990s, needs several million dollars worth of repairs before it can simulate an upper-atmosphere environment. NASA expects ESA to foot the bill for these repairs.

“There is no NASA funding for the refurbishment,” NASA spokeswoman Rachel Kraft wrote in a Nov. 27 email. Kraft said NASA officials and their ESA counterparts “have been working on a draft test plan, and should ESA make the decision to test at B-2, which has yet to be made, it is expected that there will be a refurbishment of the B-2 test facility.”

Astrium Space Transportation, a subsidiary of the Europe’s EADS aerospace conglomerate, is under contract to build the Ariane 5 ME upper stage. The stage will be powered by a reignitable Vinci cryogenic engine, built by the Snecma division of Safran S.A. DLR has already tested the  Vinci engine at Lampoldshausen.

Back in April, Jim Free, deputy director for NASA Glenn, said that the Plum Brook B-2 facility needed to have its steam ejection system overhauled to handle the tests ESA has in mind for the Ariane 5 ME’s upper stage. The needed B-2 repairs would cost several million dollars, Free said. According to NASA, a fully functioning B-2 facility could accommodate engines that produce up to 1.8 meganewtons of thrust for tests lasting as long as 14 minutes.

ESA member nations have been working on Ariane ME since 2008. The heaviest Ariane 5 configuration in service today, Ariane 5 ECA, can launch about 10 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit. Most commercial communications satellites are dropped off there before using onboard propulsion to climb to geostationary orbit roughly 36,000 kilometers above the equator.

Germany and France, the two largest financial contributors among ESA’s 20 European member states, have had a longstanding disagreement about what path the Ariane rocket family should follow to compete with emerging launch services providers in China, India, Russia and the United States.

Germany favored Ariane 5 ME, which provides a 20 percent increase in payload carrying capacity compared with the current Ariane 5. France argued for an entirely new and smaller rocket, Ariane 6, as Europe’s best bet for remaining competitive in the commercial satellite launch market. Ariane 5 has carved out its position as the commercial launch market leader by lofting two satellites at once. Ariane 6 would launch only one satellite at a time.

At ESA’s latest ministerial conference, held Nov. 20-21 in Naples, Italy, France acquiesced to Germany’s preference for an Ariane 5 upgrade, resulting in an ESA commitment to spend 187 million euros ($243 million) on Ariane 5 ME development over the next two years. But in addition, ESA will spend 244 million euros to make sure that the Ariane 5 ME upper stage could also be used in future Ariane 6 designs. ESA member states agreed in Naples to revisit the Ariane 6 issue in mid-2014.

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