The European Space Agency, as its spokesmen are wont to say, is "Europe's passport to space." Today it comprises 15 countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Britain, Norway and others. For a long time the Old World's space program was way behind that of the United States, but measures taken by the ESA in recent years have improved its situation. The motivation for this came mostly from the American president's ambitious blueprint for space exploration. Reluctant to fall behind, Europe formulated its own strategy, almost doubling its space financing. One of the key points of the new concept is to broaden international cooperation, especially in the development of advanced launch vehicles expected to usher in a new era in space utilization.
The current hardware available to Europe for space launches includes the Ariane 5 heavy vehicle, fired from Courou in French Guiana, and Russia's Soyuz medium-sized vehicle, launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan. At the end of 2006, it began building a launching facility for the Soyuz-ST at Courou and carried out firing rig tests of engines developed by the Russian Keldysh Center for the European small-class Vega rocket. The upgrading of the Ariane and Vega is expected to make Europe competitive on the space launches market. However, globalization and aggressive inroads by Chinese, Indian and Japanese rocket makers are forcing Europe to adapt to new realities. India, for example, which earlier used the Ariane rocket to launch communications satellites, is switching to its own national rocket, the GSLV-F2. Its features will be improved (to GSLV-D3/Mark-2) to ultimately produce a direct competitor to the Ariane 5 - a heavy GSLV-D1/Mark-3. On top of everything else, the Ariane 5, compared with proposals by foreign competitors, is seriously flawed, which has affected its order book. Europe's principal rival here, strange as it may appear, is Russia, one of its main partners in space.
The latest American Atlas 5 (with a Russian first-stage engine) and Delta 4 vehicles are currently used to cater to U.S. government interests and have little if any effect on the commercial launch market. American commercial launches compete with Russian Protons and Russian-Ukrainian Zenit 3SL's (Sea Launch) and, to a lesser extent, by Ariane 5's. On the other hand, Russian vehicles have launched more than a dozen European spacecraft in the last few years alone. These craft could not be orbited by an Ariane 5 because they either needed to be launched into specific orbits or had payloads that the European vehicle could not handle.
Russian launch vehicles available on the space services market continue to be modernized. 2006 saw the first commercial launch of a new rocket, the Soyuz-2 (Rus program). Final touches have been put on an advanced liquid engine for the rocket's third stage, making it possible to increase its payload by almost a ton. In the pipeline are the Soyuz-3 (Onega) and heavy Angara launch vehicles, as well as reusable systems and boost sections, including cryogenic ones using oxygen-hydrogen fuel. Faced with this situation, Europe simply must develop a competitive vehicle.
In March 2005, Anatoly Perminov, chief of the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), and Yannick d'Escatha, president of France's Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES), signed an agreement on future vehicles. The Oural program, initiated by France but involving practically all of Europe, provides for the development of technological demonstrators as a basis for designing in cooperation with Russia a new launch rocket able to lift 35 metric tons. This compares with the seven metric tons of payload Soyuz vehicles can handle.
The Europeans, together with Russian specialists, have already put together the image and concept of the Oural space system, which is to replace the present Soyuz and Ariane craft. Nikolai Anfimov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, thinks the new vehicle will most likely be a reusable one. Nevertheless, considering that the technology of reuse is not yet fully mastered, the rocket in the near future will probably be only partly reusable and even expendable in the first phase.
What first needs to be done is to build demonstrators of reusable stages and test them. The next step must be a demonstrator of a spacecraft to assess reusable heat protection as applied to a craft entering the Earth's atmosphere at orbital velocity. Then will come a ground-based demonstrator for a cryogenic fuel tank. Such a tank used by the American space shuttle twice suffered damage to its heat insulation, in one instance leading to the destruction of the vehicle upon re-entry. The last and ultimate stage, believes Anfimov, will be a demonstrator of a reusable liquid engine burning a mixture of liquid hydrogen (or oxygen) and liquid methane.
The rocket is expected to be three-staged. Nevertheless specialists believe that new solutions and materials likely to appear in the next fifteen years may allow for a two-staged vehicle, drastically reducing its per unit production costs.
The Oural project is part of a new system designed to replace the existing launch rockets by 2020-2030. This is both near and far. If need be, the Europeans could re-engineer their Ariane 5 to give it a second life, even a prolonged one. But that would be only a stopgap solution. The European space industry should not only strive to maintain its lead in important modern technologies, but also be pro-active in creating a technological breakthrough for future generations of rockets. Thanks to cooperation between Europe and Russia (the Russian-French Oural program and preparations for Soyuz launches from French Guiana), the two sides may work together for a long time to develop launch vehicles, while at the same time keeping the option open of going their separate ways.
Yury Zaitsev is an analyst with the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.