India’s PSLV rocket lifts off in June 2014 carrying Airbus Defence and Space’s Spot 7 Earth observation satellite, two years after the launch of the identical Spot 6. India’s PSLV has increased its annual launch rate, making it a serious competitor to Europe’s Vega and Soyuz vehicles. The French and Indian space agencies are nonetheless working together on future launcher studies, with France helping India transfer PSLV production from India’s ISRO agency to industry. Credit: ISRO
PARIS — The French and Indian space agencies on Jan. 9 agreed to create a joint working group to study future launcher technologies, especially those applicable to full or partial rocket reusability.
The agreement is the latest in a long history of space-technology cooperation between the two countries. Excluding European nations and the 22-nation European Space Agency (ESA), India is the second-largest partner for the French space agency, CNES, after NASA, when measured by investment volume.
But past dealings have mainly focused on Earth observation and science, not launch vehicles, which France views as the innermost sanctum of its space effort.
And while the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has been viewed with mainly benevolent neglect by CNES’s launcher directorate, the success of India’s PSLV medium-lift rocket in winning international business from owners of small satellites has not gone unnoticed.
Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel, in a Jan. 4 briefing here, heaped praise on India’s PSLV rocket, which he noted has even won business from French companies. Airbus Defence and Space launched its Spot 6 and Spot 7 satellites aboard separate PSLV rockets.
India’s work on the more-powerful GSLV rocket has suffered multiple delays but now appears on track to take at least a piece of India’s domestic satellite business within five years, if not less.
On reusability, Europe so far has seen no urgency in copying U.S.-based SpaceX, whose policy of returning to Earth its Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage has caused concerns among French politicians but not yet resulted in a major investment.
Europe’s launch sector uncertain of economic model for reusable rockets
French and European launch-industry officials remain uncertain of whether the kind of reusability envisioned by SpaceX is feasible in Europe given the likely annual launch pace.
Refurbishing and relaunching a rocket engine or stage would reduce the annual production volume and cause an increase in per-unit production costs that would need to be more the compensated by the net cost advantage of reusability.
Former French research minister Genevieve Fioraso, who had responsibility for the space sector and more recently was asked by the French government for a space-sector review, told the French parliament on Dec. 7 that reusability’s appeal might not be applicable in Europe.
Developing a partially reusable Ariane 6 rocket, she said, would have meant delaying Ariane 6’s commercial introduction to 2028. The vehicle is now on track for a 2020 inaugural flight. Longer term, Fioraso said, “it is not clear that such a vehicle would correspond to our economic model.”
“A reusable rocket may be less relevant to France than to the United states because our satellites, unlike theirs, mainly go to geostationary orbit, which means our rockets are confronted with the most difficult and abrasive conditions,” Fioraso said.
“We have looked seriously at this: The return on investment, for us, would be much less. But still we need to continue research in this area.”
Led by CNES, ESA governments in December agreed to early development of a LOX-methane motor called Prometheus, designed to cost 1 million euros ($1.05 million) apiece at commercial production volume. That compares with about 10 million euros for each Vulcain 2.1 LOX-liquid hydrogen engine today.
CNES officials hope ultimately to replace the Vulcain, used as the single main-stage engine on today’s Ariane 5 rocket, with multiple Prometheus engines, a implicit nod to the SpaceX policy of a nine-engine first stage.
The CNES-ISRO agreement on future launchers was signed at India’s space capital of Bangalore by CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall and ISRO Chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar, in the presence of French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.
It is unclear exactly how far the joint working group will go before one or the other side decides to pull down the sovereignty curtain.
The work will be preceded by a brief training regime in France — at CNES, Arianespace and Airbus Safran Launchers — for experienced ISRO engineers.
CNES’s Astorg: Joint work to have no effect on Europe’s Prometheus engine
“The training will be just five days and will deal with quality assurance,” said Jean-Marc Astorg, CNES’s director of launchers, in an emailed response to SpaceIntelReport questions. “The training relates to the industrialization of the PSLV by ISRO, which wants to give more authority to its industry in the production phase. Up to now this was tightly managed by ISRO.
“CNES will present to ISRO the methods we have used, particularly related to Ariane 5, to go from a development phase under CNES responsibility to an operations phase under industrial management. CNES included industrial-management methods right from the start of the development of Ariane 5, which now has flown 76 times consecutively.”
Astorg said no detailed work plan on future launchers has yet be decided between CNES and ISRO, but that both agencies “are looking for faster, less-expensive methods to develop future launchers — for what is sometimes called ‘frugal innovation.’”
CNES and ISRO previously worked on rocket technology but the collaboration ceased in the 1990s, when Ariane 5 development was occurring.
Astorg said the new bilateral effort would in no way impact the development of the Prometheus motor by six ESA nations — France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Belgium and Switzerland — which is scheduled to produce a test prototype before 2020.