The delay of new giant rockets complicates launching satellites

Posted on January 3, 2023, 7:35 am

They were supposed to create the event in 2022. They were especially notable by their absence. Ariane 6, New Glenn, Starship, Vulcan Centaur, H3… None of these rockets, which represent the future generation of high-capacity launchers and carry the ambitions of an expanding sector, took off this year.

More powerful, more modular, partially reusable, more economical… The launchers of the future compete in arguments, on paper. But the design difficulties are proportionate to the promises.

Three of them (Starship, New Glenn and Vulcan Centaur) took the place of liquid methane. Denser than hydrogen, it should make it possible to reduce the size of rockets and be easier to use, in combination with liquid oxygen. But that transition involved a complete overhaul of the thruster design.

technological transition

Blue Origin, which develops the New Glenn, embarked on the development of the BE-4 engine and sold it to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for Vulcan Centaur. The accumulated delays have penalized both launchers: the ULA only received its boosters in November and is now planning a maiden flight in early 2023, while Jeff Bezos’ company simply stopped communicating on its launcher.

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SpaceX, in turn, seems to have better mastered the development of the Raptor engine, but Starship presents such a technological advance that its development still does not seem to be complete. The proliferation of tests of the Super Heavy’s first stage indicates that it is not yet ready for an orbital flight, which is still under the green light of the United States Air Force (FAA).

The Japanese H3 and European Ariane 6 launchers have a more classic design, but have not been further polished. The former suffered difficulties in designing the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries LE-9 thruster. The second suffers from the delays that occurred during the last tests, as well as from the political-industrial tensions that led to the recent formation of a “task force”.

SpaceX alone on the runway?

Calendar Slips are the lot of new launchers. But the fact that they are all absent at the same time is disturbing. Especially as fallback solutions are becoming rarer. In Europe, the last two Ariane 5 flights have already been sold, while the Soyuz has been withdrawn by Russia. In the United States, the ULA can no longer buy new Russian RD-180 engines for its Atlas V because of the war in Ukraine and only has those already purchased for the last scheduled burns. And even if all new rockets were flying by 2023, it would take time for programs to scale up and absorb demand.

“The benefit will go to operational launchers and there are not many of them: Falcon 9 and possibly the Indian GSLV launcher. But this one does not have a very high rate of fire and cannot be increased in six months”, underlines Rachel Villain, responsible for the space sector at Euroconsult. That leaves SpaceX, which also urgently needs its Falcon 9 to launch its Starlink constellation, especially in the absence of Starship. It has already struggled to maintain a pace of more than one release per week in 2022.

“Everything will depend on SpaceX arbitrations between its three main customers: itself, firstly, American institutional players, the Department of Defense and NASA, and, thirdly, commercial customers”, continues Rachel Villain.

endangered kuiper

The delay in new launchers already threatens Kuiper, the constellation of Amazon, which would be launched from 2024 by Vulcan Centaur, New Glenn and Ariane 6. To maintain the license granted by the American telecommunications police, the e-commerce giant must have placed in orbit by 2026 at least half of the 3,236 satellites planned.

“Kuiper is in a critical situation and it’s hard to imagine Amazon buying SpaceX launches”, underlines Rachel Villain, who identifies another potential victim: Telesat’s Lightspeed constellation project, which is already struggling to complete its funding. “The increase in the cost of the satellite supply chain, delays in new heavy launchers and the likely increase in the cost of available launchers could impact the program,” she points out.

Europeans can also suffer from the situation, given the unavailability of community launchers. The European Space Agency (ESA), in particular, has already called SpaceX to launch two missions in 2023 and 2024 and may need new places aboard the rare operational launchers if Ariane 6 is delayed.

There remains the question of the military and its satellites, both very expensive and with very secret characteristics. But for Xavier Pasco, director of the Strategic Research Foundation, the possible synergies with the commercial attenuate the urgency. “Some missions will be able to be carried out with commercial means, which will be more and more numerous and more and more efficient”, he explains. On the Pentagon side, it is considered a factor of resistance and resilience. »

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