There is a tradition that Germany would like to see disappear: its relegation to the background in European space policy. Admittedly, the federal administration has long given it little interest, allowing France to arrogate to itself decision-making power, at the service of large companies in which the State is a shareholder, such as Thales, Airbus and Safran, which share the market. But New Space and the necessary acceleration of the transition to the electric car are now changing the situation and now Germany is boasting of new ambitions, because its companies will very quickly need access to space. Two visions clash: France wishing to maintain a monopoly situation, while Germany would like to introduce competition, on launchers, satellites and the launch pad.
The two French protagonists in the service of this monopoly vision are named by the Wirtschaftswoche. The head of state first of all, Emmanuel Macron, who wants to keep control of European space travel. His first mention of a microlancer program in February 2021 would be a sign of growing concern to observers about the new competition that looms – even if he brushed it aside by reaffirming the ‘unnecessary diversification of projects. Second protagonist of this clever fool’s market: Thierry Breton, European commissioner in charge of industrial policy, considered by Germany as the defender of French interests.
In this latent conflict, frustrations resurface: the absence of real tenders for various markets, such as the new-generation rocket engine Prometheus, or the setback suffered by the German manufacturer OHB, which had proudly manufactured the first generation. of Galileo navigation satellites and which saw the contract for the second generation slip away under its nose. A decision taken in spite of common sense, according to the commissioner in charge of space, Thomas Jarzombek (CDU), who remains perplexed by this project of huge satellites at a time of miniaturization. Despite the strengths of its young shoots (flexibility, responsiveness, lower costs), its past neglect is now costing Germany the contracts of the future. It is also jeopardizing its autonomy at a time when the largest company in the country, Volkswagen, has decided to network its electric vehicles by satellite. This is why the industrialists and the German government will at all costs try to nibble even a meager share of this crucial market.
Is it a coincidence that Johann-Dietrich Wörner left the management of the European Space Agency (ESA) in February 2021, after only six years, while his predecessor, the French Jean-Jacques Dordain, remained four years more at the same post? The Süddeutsche Zeitung, who interviews this engineer by training, former president of the Technical University of Darmstadt, suggests that France is at the origin of his early departure, and that it hopes to be able to exert a greater influence on the intergovernmental agency from now on . It is true that Wörner presents himself not only as a proponent of competition in the field of launchers, but that he counts among his successes the opening of ESA to commercialization and internationalization. Now disillusioned by the heaviness of the organization, he admits to having been enough “naive“to believe that the post of director would give him a margin of decision and a certain power, but the agency would serve above all the national interests.”Advancing Europe“,”make things happen“, such were his key words, and he can count to his credit the next realization, no doubt during this decade, of a vision originally considered as utopian, the Moon village, which will be the result of cooperative work and pooling of interests in order to settle permanently on the Moon. Wörner, however, deplores three major failures during his term of office: the postponement of the launch of Ariane 6 until 2022, when it was planned in 2020; that of the ExoMars mission, initially prepared for 2018; and the crash of the Schiaparelli probe on Mars. There are however more serious than these delays: the ESA is now in a fragile situation, he judges , because the space activities of Europe could merge under the aegis of the European Union, and the agency would then risk losing its autonomy of decision to become a simple technological department. The Austrian geophysicist Josef Aschbacher is since March 2021 the new general manager from ESA.
HAP alpha, a stratospheric platform to replace satellites
The German Aerospace Center (DLR), a research center for aeronautics and space, is developing an unmanned stratospheric aircraft powered by solar energy, the trade journal announces FlugReview. 17 institutes covering different fields of aeronautics, space and security are mobilized on this transversal project called HAP alpha, the objective of which is to develop a complete expertise of systems for high altitude aircraft.
HAP alpha is a modular kite-shaped platform with a wingspan of 27 meters; the weight of its structure is 36 kg, but since it is modifiable, the entire aircraft weighs 138 kg. Three types of payloads can be transported, including a high resolution camera and a radar system. The platform is built in carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP), which guarantees lightness and stability, because it must be able to rise up to an altitude of 20 kilometers in order, eventually, to park there permanently.
This type of structure has many advantages according to the DLR. The platform can indeed fulfill the same missions as a satellite (observation, communication) at a lower cost, in terms of both construction and launch, and without generating space pollution once its mission is completed. By positioning itself in the lower stratosphere, above air traffic, it does not know the meteorological limits which condition the efficiency of planes and helicopters. HAP alpha therefore combines the advantages of space flight and aeronautics while freeing itself from their disadvantages and limitations. However, only one condition is necessary: sufficient solar energy.
The first take-off is scheduled for the end of 2022. Several test flight campaigns will be carried out in order to gradually reach the target altitude of 20 kilometers. This flight can last up to 24 hours, due to the low speed of the platform, which will probably only stay at maximum altitude for about two hours. As several teams will have to take turns on the maneuver, the program also includes the development of a mobile earth station, where scientists will be able to interact with HAP alpha from more than 100 kilometers away. Developed since 2018, the DLR project is still in the preliminary stages of design. The demonstrator will not be manufactured until the researchers have finished examining, verifying and testing the feasibility of the system.
HAP alpha, the high altitude platform developed by the DLR. © DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
The ADEO space sail for passive deorbiting
On April 20, ESA organized the eighth European conference on space debris: four days of discussion between experts and industrialists to take stock of this new challenge. The increase in the number of satellites has in fact as a corollary an increase in waste and an increasing risk of collisions in space. AT this occasion, the daily Die welt has chosen to highlight an original technology for eliminating space debris, developed by the Munich-based company HPS. With more than 20 years of existence, HPS is today one of the most important players in the German space sector; the company has previously worked for institutional sponsors such as ESA and DLR, and now wishes to take advantage of New Space by marketing a product suitable for future satellite launches. The ADEO subsystem consists of a space sail that deploys after the satellite has completed its mission in order to accelerate its fall. By increasing the surface area of the satellite, the drag force is multiplied, because in low earth orbit, the residual atmosphere is very thin, but still existing. This effect of pressure, even minimal, on the surface of the sail, is enough to accelerate the dive of the satellite, which thus reaches more quickly the denser layers of the atmosphere to burn there. The major advantage of this passive deorbiting device is its autonomy since there is no active piloting; its lightness is its second asset since it requires neither propulsion nor additional engine.
The system would have already proven itself in a first attempt in 2018, even if the camera supposed to prove it broke down. A new mission is planned for June 2021, with the launch of a minisatellite from the Italian company D-Orbit equipped with a square sail with a side of 2.2 meters, which will be able to deploy six months later, when the satellite will have completed its work. However, HPS hopes that the international code of conduct (IADC) adopted in 2007, providing that satellites can remain in orbit for up to 25 years after the end of their mission, will soon be updated. A shorter period would indeed allow it to quickly conclude new deorbiting contracts thanks to this system which was initially intended to propel the satellites further into space.