Faced with SpaceX, Europe is trying to get back into the race for reusable, automatic and habitable equipment. ArianeGroup has an upper stage project for Ariane 6 that fulfills all these requirements: Susie.
It is a concept that gives an indication of the path that Europe could take in aerospace terms. On the sidelines of the International Astronautical Congress, which is being held in Paris from September 18 to 22, 2022, ArianeGroup presented Susie, a proposal to design a “fully reusable” upper stage capable of accommodating cargo or a crew.
A habitable, reusable and automatic upper stage
Susie, an acronym for Intelligent Higher Stage for Innovative Exploration, is dedicated to supporting future European launchers, most notably the Ariane 6 (whose maiden flight is scheduled for 2023), then the Ariane Next, a codename for the rocket that will succeed it in about ten years. Ariane 5 will not benefit from this, nor will Vega.
As the upper stage, Susie will take the place of the fairing that sits on top of the Ariane rockets. This headdress consists of two pieces. They separate and are ejected when the rocket reaches an altitude high enough that it is no longer necessary to protect the payload (a satellite, for example) from air friction during atmospheric traversal.
In the visuals shared by ArianeGroup, we notice that Susie looks a bit like the American space shuttle, with an opening at the level of the central body, with two diverging leaves on each side. This makes it possible to release a payload into space, but also allow astronauts to work without having to leave the vehicle.
Other artist visualizations show Susie able to interact with the International Space Station (ISS), similar to other cargo ships that carry crews or bring in supplies. Another scene shows the upper stage in orbit, waiting for another vehicle. This then “clip” to Susie and the whole thing goes towards the Moon.
Susie could thus participate in the American space agency’s Artemis program, which consists of bringing astronauts back to the satellite, transporting personnel to the lunar space station, in orbit. Susie is described as being able to accommodate five people on board. In comparison, the Soyuz has three seats and the Crew Dragon has seven.
The Susie Floor” is based on the in-depth study of Europe’s future needs in terms of space transport and in-orbit services, and the need for a profound change in the logic of access to space “, says ArianeGroup. It remains a concept, which will evolve into its final version – we can therefore expect notable differences with what is shown today.
These general features, however, include the possibility of being controllable by a crew or automatically. The floor will have to assume many types of missions whether they are inhabited or not. The device must be reusable, which implies a controlled re-entry capability to the atmosphere and a controlled landing on land or at sea.
Among the expected additional faculties, in addition to all those already mentioned, Susie could also be used for ” contribute to the reduction of in-orbit debris and the removal or deorbiting of end-of-life satellites to tow satellites, inspect or update them. In short, Susie comes across as a real “ swiss army knife floor “.
A higher stage for the launchers of the future
Susie is intended for the heaviest European launchers (hence the Ariane 64 and the absence of a project involving the Vega, which is a light launcher), due to its large mass (25 tons) and its consequent dimensions (12 meters of length, 5 meters wide). The inner bay has a volume of 40 m3 and the machine has the ability to bring more than seven tons of payload back to Earth.
Susie’s specifics seem to be influenced by the trajectory of a growing part of the aerospace industry. For a few years now, we have been hearing more and more about launchers or launcher segments capable of autonomously navigating, automatically returning to Earth if necessary, and reserving them multiple times.
SpaceX is obviously the name that comes up the most. The American company has acquired undeniable leadership and experience, but Europe is getting back into the race. In addition to Susie, we are aware of the existence of several projects, such as Callisto and Themis, which tend to set the stage for future reusable and auto launchers in Europe. We thought of Ariane Next, again.
It is not absolutely certain that Ariane 6 will go this route, as the rocket was not developed in that direction from the beginning. Could future developments reorient the launcher’s operation? That is yet to be seen, especially as it might not pay off with the relative proximity of Ariane Next, which is expected from 2030.
It remains now to determine what will be the follow-up to this concept. ArianeGroup has been working on the topic for years, remember. The beginning of this promising phase will not occur until 2023, when Ariane 6 will take its first steps. This is a hypothetical calendar: ArianeGroup refrains from giving a date in its ad.