SASSENAGE, France — The supplier of cryogenic propellant for Europe’s Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket is raising the alarm that a move toward a next-generation vehicle that discards cryogenics could put an end to a half-century’s development of the technology in France.
Officials from Air Liquide Advanced Technologies, which is based here, said its corporate parent, industrial-gas giant Air Liquide, with 14.5 billion euros ($18.1 billion) in annual revenue, will not suffer a financial blow if an Ariane 6 vehicle scraps cryogenics and forces a shutdown of Air Liquide’s liquid-oxygen and liquid-hydrogen production.
Air Liquide’s entire space business, including work here, in Vernon, France, and at Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America, generates just over 1 percent of the group’s total revenue.
But such a decision would have domino effects on cryogenic work at Europe’s high-energy physics research facility, CERN, which is located near here; and on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, ITER, which is being built in southern France.
Pierre Etienne Franc, director of Air Liquide’s future technologies division, said the nonspace-related cryogenic work will be difficult to maintain without an ongoing demand from the Ariane rocket |program.
“If the decision is made to move to an Ariane 6 rocket immediately, then this opens up a lot of questions that no one, to our knowledge, has started to answer,” Franc said here during a briefing with journalists. “I can tell you that, for us, if the Ariane 5 ME vehicle is not selected by European governments, then we will have to fight for cryogenics in the Ariane 6 program.”
Some 50 percent of Air Liquide’s cryogenic work, which began in 1962, is for the space sector, Franc said.
France and the 18 other members of the European Space Agency (ESA) will meet in late November in Caserta, Italy, to decide, among other issues, whether to develop a new cryogenic, restartable upper stage for Ariane 5, called Ariane 5 ME, or proceed directly to a less-powerful Ariane 6 rocket.
Ariane 6, whose architecture has not been settled, may or may not use cryogenic fuel. It is being designed so that the total cost of ownership — construction and long-term operations — is lower than that of Ariane 5.
To prepare for what at the time looked like a shoo-in decision favoring Ariane 5 ME, Air Liquide and Astrium Space Transportation, which is Ariane 5’s prime contractor, created a joint venture called EuroCryoSpace.
Based in Bremen, Germany, EuroCryoSpace will be partially under Air Liquide daily management but will move some of its current cryogenic propulsion capacity from France to Germany.
Air Liquide officials, including Air Liquide Advance Technologies Chief Executive Xavier Vigor and Space Activities Director France Hamber, described the creation of EuroCryoSpace as a necessary concession to win German backing for Ariane 5 ME.
While these kinds of industrial tradeoffs are commonplace among ESA member nations, in this case it does raise the question of the long-term viability of France’s position in cryogenics.
Most industry and government officials debating Ariane 6 say that whatever its eventual design, the vehicle will use the new Vinci engine that is being built for Ariane 5 ME.
What is not clear is whether Ariane 6 will have any place for Air Liquide’s main contributions to Ariane 5, which are the propellant tank outer structure for the vehicle’s main cryogenic stage, and the cryogenic oxygen and hydrogen.
Each Ariane 5 main stage carries a total of 175,000 kilograms of cryogenic fuel, which is produced by Air Liquide’s French Guiana division. The division produces some 10 million liters of cryogenic propellant per year, Hamber said.
Air Liquide delivers fuel and other spaceport gases, including helium, compressed air and nitrogen, to the launch base through a network of 57 kilometers of pipelines, including 12 kilometers of pipeline feeding the new Europeanized version of Russia’s medium-lift Soyuz rocket.
Whatever vehicle is selected by ESA governments in November — the current betting is that Ariane 5 ME, which will require less capital investment in the near term, will be approved — the French government will play a major role in its financing.
The French space agency, CNES, has prepared a series of policy alternatives for the new French government, which arrived in office in May and June. A formal government position is expected in the coming weeks.
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