PARIS Astrium Space Transportation will study technologies for re-ignitable cryogenic-fueled rocket upper stages under a two-year contract with the European Space Agency (ESA) valued at 20 million euros ($24 million), Astrium announced June 23.

The work, to be conducted as part of ESA’s Future Launchers Preparatory Program, will focus on managing liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen in low-gravity conditions.

Also to be studied will be thermal insulation for the propellant tanks to ensure that the super-cooled liquid fuel does not warm up enough to transform into a gas. Liquid hydrogen needs to be kept at minus 253 degrees Celsius to maintain its liquid state, while liquid oxygen needs to be maintained at minus 183 degrees Celsius or cooler.

The 18-nation ESA is conducting preliminary work on a restartable cryogenic upper stage for the Ariane 5 rocket that would be powered by the Vinci motor in development at Snecma Moteurs of France. ESA governments are expected to decide in 2012 whether to complete development of this upper stage or to proceed directly with early work on a successor to Ariane 5.

The French government is expected to invest 250 million euros later this year on post-Ariane 5 designs as part of an economic stimulus package. It remains unclear whether ESA governments in 2012 will elect to improve Ariane 5 through the Vinci-powered stage or start work on a next-generation rocket.

The Astrium contract includes two flight tests of cryogenic fuel management techniques to be performed in 2011 aboard a Texus suborbital sounding rocket launched from Sweden.


Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.