French Agencies To Collaborate on Reusable Rocket

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PARIS — The French government’s two aerospace-focused agencies on Oct. 2 said they are pooling resources to study a launching system that would return its entire first stage to Earth for reuse, a goal shared by SpaceX but not one being pursued by Europe’s Airbus Defence and Space rocket prime contractor.

In a joint statement, the French space agency, CNES, and France’s ONERA aerospace research institute said the objective of the work is to “develop a rocket first stage that is capable of returning to its launch base.”

Earlier this year, Airbus disclosed that it had been working on a reusable design that would separate the rocket’s first-stage engines and part of the avionics suite for a return to Earth and later reuse.

Airbus said the value of the first stage lies mainly in its engines and that returning the entire first stage for refurbishment and reuse would not improve the economics of launching satellites.

More recently, United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado, disclosed a similar reusability scenario for its future Vulcan rocket. The first-stage engine block would separate from the lower stage and later be recovered for reuse.

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX has already begun attempts to recover its Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage.

CNES has been working on reusability options for years, but none of them has moved beyond the early design phase. It is not clear that its latest collaboration with ONERA will go further. For now, it is restricted to studies on digital aerothermodynamic simulations.

“The expertise of CNES and ONERA in launcher design and hypersonic and subsonic vehicles will be mobilized” for the work on reusable rocket designs, the two agencies said.

The two agencies said they would decide in 2016 whether to deepen their collaboration based on results from the initial work.