ESA awards five smallsat launcher study contracts

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Updated Feb. 9 at 11:05 a.m. Eastern with additional information from Zero 2 Infinity. 

MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — The European Space Agency on Feb. 8 announced five companies will study potential small launch vehicles for the agency’s Future Launchers Preparatory Programme (FLPP).

ArianeGroup, MT Aerospace, European Launch Vehicle, Deimos and PLD Space are all proposing “microlaunchers” for dedicated missions to low-Earth orbit that can be “economically viable,” and “commercially self-sustaining” but “without public funding,” ESA said.

“A European commercial microlauncher can meet the growing need for dedicated launch services to companies with small satellites,” Jerome Breteau, manager of ESA’s Future Launchers Preparatory Programme,” said in a Feb. 8 statement.

ESA’s Space Transportation Communications Coordinator Julio Aprea declined to state the value or duration of each study contract. Subsequent steps following the study contracts have not been decided, he said.

PLD Space CEO and co-founder Raul Torres told SpaceNews his company’s contract is worth 300,000 euros ($368,000) for Arion 2, a small, reusable launcher for missions up to 150 kilograms to LEO. In a press release, Spain-based PLD Space said the contract also tasks the 36-person startup with proposing and defining a new European spaceport “dedicated to launching small satellites to polar and heliosynchronous orbits.”

That spaceport “would ideally be located in Spain,” PLD Space said, though the company is considering four other sites — Portugal, Norway’s Andoya Island, the United Kingdom’s proposed spaceport and Europe’s existing spaceport near Kourou, French Guiana.

ESA did not specify the mass range considered for the FLPP contracts, but any new rocket would presumably be complementary to Europe’s existing launcher family — the heavy-lift Ariane 5, medium-lift Soyuz and light-lift Vega. The smallest rocket in that family, Vega, can lift up to 1,500 kilograms — five times the lift mass of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne, and 10 times that of Rocket Lab’s Electron.

The four other companies with FLPP contracts all build or support existing European launchers. ArianeGroup of France and Germany, builds the Ariane 5 and future Ariane 6 with a consortium of partners across ESA member states, and has proposed a three-stage vehicle called “[email protected]” or Quick Access to Space, using a hybrid propulsion system with hydrogen peroxide as a fuel.

ELV — short for European Launch Vehicle, a 70-30 joint venture between Italian rocket builder Avio and the Italian Space Agency — proposed two microlaunchers based on Vega and future iterations of that rocket. The first, the “Quick Launch Vehicle,” would use two solid propellant stages and a liquid-propellant-based upper stage, while the “Final Launch Vehicle” would link the next-generation Vega C’s first stage and the next-next-generation Vega E’s methane-based upper stage.

Vega manufacturer Avio in November hinted at interest in building a simplified Vega for missions up to 250 kilograms. Such a launcher could be ready by 2020 or 2021, the company said.

Portugal-based Deimos, which built the autonomous navigation and precision landing launcher technology for ESA’s uncrewed Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) spaceplane, will study a two-stage liquid propulsion launcher.

OHB Systems company MT Aerospace, producer of structures for Ariane 5, Ariane 6 and Vega C, offered four small launch concepts — one air-launch, one stratospheric-launch and two ground-launch systems. The air-launch system is “Daneo,” a three-stage rocket launched from a Falcon 2000S aircraft at 15-kilometers altitude.

The stratospheric launcher is Bloostar, a hybrid balloon-rocket system that Barcelona-based Zero 2 Infinity has been developing for 75-kilogram missions.

Guillaume Girard, Zero 2 Infinity’s chief commercial officer, told SpaceNews Feb. 9 that MT Aerospace is only a partner on the ESA study, not on the development of Bloostar, a vehicle now five years under Zero 2 Infinity development. Zero 2 Infinity launched a scaled-down Bloostar prototype last year, and plans additional testing late this year.

MT Aerospace’s ground launch systems, mentioned only as “MTA” and “WARR” are two- and three-stage rockets respectively that both would use liquid propulsion.