Ariane 6: Project Susie, a turning point for Europe in space?

Difficulty in making a decision at 22, not 1 or 2. This is a syndrome that has paralyzed space Europe for several decades for each of its major projects. It took him about fifteen years to find a parade against SpaceX and its reusable Falcon 9 launch vehicle, thanks to the Ariane 6 program, the first of which will fly in 2023. astronauts.

Thus, thirty years after abandoning its space shuttle project (Hermes), the European Space Agency (ESA) finally seems to have made this autonomy an object of sovereignty. His boss, Austrian Josef Aschbacher, even made it a priority at the beginning of the year, lamenting that “Europe has no concrete capabilities for manned flights in low orbit — less than 2,000 kilometers from the Earth — let alone exploration missions beyond the Moon. .” A real disappointment at a time when all the other major space powers (USA, China, Russia) have their own solutions. Even India has invested almost $1.5 billion in its next launch vehicle (GSLV Mark III) and small manned capsule (Gaganyaan).

Giving Europe new ambitions

Under these conditions, ArianeGroup surprised at the International Astronautical Congress (IAS 2022), which runs until September 22 in Paris (Porte de Versailles), presenting “Suzy” (for a smart upper stage for innovative research), a project prepared in the greatest secrecy his teams for two years. This semi-shuttle, semi-cargo cargo ship is an innovative 100% reusable upper stage that will be placed on top of the launcher, whether it be the Ariane 64 (largest version) or its successor. “The idea is to replace the cover with this five-meter-diameter module that could be easily plugged in. It’s a fully integrated concept to reduce operating costs,” explains Jost Van Thoren, Manned Mission Manager, Futures Programs. European group.

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Susie impresses primarily with its dimensions, since with a height of 12 meters and a mass of 25 tons, the internal volume of the machine is 43 cubic meters. This gives it great flexibility. “This is an intelligent and scalable solution that opens the era of European reusability. It will allow missions to tow, inspect or upgrade satellites and other payloads, refuel space stations with fuel, food and equipment, transport elements to create orbital infrastructures such as space stations,” said Morena Bernardini, director of strategy and innovation at ArianeGroup.

One day the astronauts will take off from Kuru

First of all, this top floor will have a “capsule” version to carry five astronauts (hence the five cabin windows), so you can see a crew of Europeans take off on board within ten years. from the Kourou base in Guyana, without depending on the Americans or the Russians, to reach the International Space Station (ISS) or even another private orbital complex that could replace it.

Moreover, in the vision of Jeff Bezos himself (the boss of Blue Origin), according to which low orbit is still colonized, Susie will be able to help build this type of structure due to her payload capacity. Finally, the spacecraft will be able to register for longer and more distant missions, at least for entering lunar orbit: it will be possible to add an adapter module to it to provide propulsion and power supply in the air for the crew, for example, the European Service Module (ESM), which Airbus built for the Orion, a spacecraft designed to return a man to the moon, as part of the US Artemis program. In fact, Europe is trying through this project to mobilize all its skills, the fruit of a long legacy: both ESM and ATV, a cargo transport vehicle that flew from 2008 to 2014, and finally the Hermès Shuttle abandoned in 1992.

“We have all the technology and capabilities to meet future space needs that can only grow,” says Morena Bernardini. With one exception: the Susie spacecraft must be able to return to Earth, either to deliver payloads or satellites, or to deliver crews of astronauts safe and sound. To do this, European engineers will have to achieve this return, which will involve glide in the upper atmosphere, and then a vertical landing “with high precision.”

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A whole section of reusable equipment that Europe is far from mastering. But with China’s new ambitions, the acceleration of the aeronautics sector imposed by SpaceX, or even the end of all space cooperation with Russia, Europe no longer has the choice to slowly move forward. The Susie project will be presented at the ministerial meeting of the European Space Agency next November. Its 22 members will have to decide on the budget for the next three years. And be brave as you risk seeing Europe lose its status as the world’s great space power.



Professor Alain Fischer is Professor of Pediatric Immunology, Honorary Professor at the College de France and a member of the Academies of Medicine and Sciences.Prof. Alain Fisher

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