Despite continued controversy as to the exact reasons for the change, it remains a scientific fact that the weather – indeed the climate as a whole – appears to be changing. The old norms of the cool north and sweltering south are rapidly being replaced on a hitherto unprecedented level. News last week from France where Parisians reacted with incredulity and disbelief at seeing their thermometers rising to an unbelievable 112º F, along with those living in the south of France where temperatures hit a new record of 114º F, were further evidence that global norms are in transition. And given that France, where the historical average for June falls between the high 60s to low 70s Fahrenheit, is unaccustomed to such extreme heat it was only to be expected that residents in the French ‘City of Love’ would go out of their way – and perhaps out of town – to escape the heat. In the same way as fortunate Manhattanites decamp to the Hamptons during the hottest part of the year, Parisians – otherwise famous for their sang-froid – could be forgiven for an impulse to quit the city for cooler regions further afield. But when searching for relief how far is far enough? Is seeking the chill of space, for example, going just that little bit too far? We think so, but – made possible by cleanroom-based science and technology – France’s space program appears to be in a stage of growth, and it’s about more than just the weather. Read on to learn more…
The reinvigoration of the national space program might be due in part to the – arguably envious – eye the French might be casting upon the latest mission of SpaceX’s massive Falcon Heavy rocket.
Launching last week, the behemoth enjoyed a relative success in its mission on behalf of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and no fewer than 13 other partners. We qualify this thought with the word ‘relative’ due to the crash landing of the rocket’s core booster which narrowly missed its target landing site of a drone ship and splashed down in the ocean. Critics take note: not even Elon Musk can please all of the people all of the time. On the other hand, the two side boosters were successfully retrieved and found their way back to Cape Canaveral. So, on balance and despite this minor ‘snafu,’ the mission seems to have been successful.
In a lift-off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the gargantuan rocket exerted 5 million pounds of thrust as it propelled a mass of 141,000 pounds into the skies. According to an article published in Digital Trends, a content portal in the ‘fast-paced world of tech,’ this payload is equivalent to ‘a mass greater than a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage, and fuel.’(1) And what was aboard the Falcon Heavy? Built by students at Michigan State University, there were 12 nano-satellites that allow Earth-based observatories a more precise way of monitoring spacecraft in orbit. Additionally, solar sail technology of the kind espoused by Bill Nye was also on board, along with a Deep Space Atomic Clock engineered by NASA to assist future long-term missions into deep space. Billed as SpaceX’s ‘most difficult launch ever,’ the mission – Space Test Program 2 (STP2) – carried a total of 24 satellites and underwent 20 separation events during its three orbits. Alongside the French, the collective breath of the aerospace world was firmly held.
So given its interest in the U.S. space program, what is the news from the French counterparts to NASA and SpaceX?
In characteristic nonchalence Jean-Marc Astorg of the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales’ (CNES) which operates jointly from the Toulouse Space Center in France and the Guyana Space Centre in French Guyana, South America noted that engineering advances by the agency have indeed been heavily influenced by those of SpaceX. In the Q&A section of an article in SatelliteObservation.net, a blog dedicated to news from the Earth Observation Industry, Astorg was quick to admit that the similarities between Callisto, a reusable rocket developed in partnership between French and German engineering teams, and Grasshopper, the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage reuse prototype, are marked. ‘Callisto is Grasshopper […] I have no problem saying we didn’t invent anything.’(2)’
But although the shape of the engineering might be similar, the French are adopting a very different approach to the enterprise level process of developing future technology. In a move reminiscent of the Israeli partnership between SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries that we covered back in February, CNES is now working in collaboration with the Ariane Group, a European aerospace initiative, to tackle a major problem plaguing the industry: reusability. Themis – Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms – uses a low-cost rocket that operates inside of the planet’s magnetosphere, studying magnetic substorms (events that result in polar auroras) and, to date, has lacked the benefits of a reusable first stage to power its 100 tons of thrust. But, with an eye to recent transatlantic success, current research is focused on moving to a re-usable model which, it is thought, may result in a 90% cost savings over non-reusable boosters.
And this is of critical importance to the French program for very solid economic reasons. Again in SatelliteObservation.net, it is said that the annual increase in NASA’s budget (2017 to 2018) represented to the same amount as the entire budget allocated to CNES. So with that in mind, any cost savings are indeed of significance, but how is a 90% reduction possible? For CNES, it currently takes around three years to manufacture a rocket launcher and the price tag comes in at approximately 100 million Euros per unit. The rocket’s lifespan can then be as short as 30 minutes after launch, splashing back into an ocean environment which makes refurbishment and re-use a complex and ultimately cost-prohibitive option. But taking the Falcon 9 as a model for rocket re-use, a technique known as a ‘toss-back’ can be deployed in which an engine is relit to facilitate course change after second stage separation. However, although pioneered by SpaceX, the technique is singularly difficult to achieve. Difficult but not impossible.
SatelliteObservation.net‘s article did note that possible disadvantages of moving to a reusability model included loss of performance due to added hardware on the first stage of the rocket, changes in operations and safety, and the lack of absolute guarantee of recovery. But none of these issues counterweigh the potential for costs savings or for a reduction in the environmental impact of sourcing raw materials. And so the decision was made to move the project forward.
…it should be noted that the French space agency is also hedging its bets by partnering with German counterparts in the development of an additional reusable vehicle.
In a first step to re-engineering boosters to meet this new requirement, CNES’s partnership with the ArianeGroup has launched ArianeWorks, an ‘acceleration platform’ that will ‘boost innovation for future launcher development by bringing teams together under one roof and connecting them to Europe’s ecosystem.’(3) This research partnership is different insofar as it is designed as a flexible and permeable environment in which international team-based collaboration dramatically reduces research overlap and decreases development time. Not only are the costs associated with R&D expected to be streamlined but additional funding is anticipated as stakeholders in the aerospace ecosystem (both established and potential) have a ring-side seat in witnessing the ways in which collaborative innovation achieves tangible results within shorter timescales. With all of that that said, it should be noted that the French space agency is also hedging its bets by partnering with German counterparts in the development of an additional reusable vehicle. The Callisto – Cooperative Action leading to Launcher Innovation in Stage Toss back Operations – is powered by a Prometheus engine, incorporates retractable landing landing legs and fins, and is designed for vertical take off. Perhaps not coincidentally, it also sports remarkable similarities to SpaceX’s Falcon 9.
Certainly with China’s drive to push the boundaries of its program, it is important that both the US and Europe do not drop the ball in terms of available technology and future vision.
With France’s renewed interest in aerospace technology development and space exploration on Europe’s collective mind, it will be interesting to see the extent to which the collaborative model espoused by CNES in conjunction with the ArianeGroup/ArianeWorks steps the program forward. Certainly with China’s drive to push the boundaries of its program, it is important that both the US and Europe do not drop the ball in terms of available technology and future vision. And part of this might be the diversification of mission programs. To date, space programs have largely focused upon the acquisition of scientific data, leveraging the ability to reach out from our planet to explore both the properties of other worlds and the limitations of our own. However, with private enterprises such as Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, mission diversification can and must occur. Which is why we saw, for instance, a company like Celestis piggy-backing on the Falcon Heavy to deliver the cremated remains of 152 people into space. One of the ‘passengers’ in the most recent launch was Bill Pogue, Apollo 11 support engineer, whose canister of ashes orbited the Earth ‘before vaporizing like a shooting star as it re-enters the atmosphere.’(4)
A fitting tribute indeed to a such legendary figure within the history of space exploration.
Do the advances in space exploration technology by other countries inspire you? Or do you fear their effect upon our home-grown programs. Please tell us in the comments!