The Next Ten Years: Europe and Japan

This is the second article in a multi-part series on the commercial and civil space landscape over the next 10 years.

The Next Ten Years: Europe and Japan


The next 1o years will largely see incremental improvements for the European launch service providers and rocket manufacturers unless they are secretly gearing up for revolutionary changes in their operations.  This is not necessarily a bad thing as Arianespace (and by extension, their manufacturing arm in Airbus Safran launchers) have proven to be reliable and on-time over the past decade.  Continuing that trend into the next decade provides a measure of stability to the launch industry even if it isn’t as sexy as landing and re-using first stages.  The Ariane 6 will be retired and replaced by the Ariane 6 which is a rather straightforward upgrade to the older rocket. Vega will also be upgraded to provide some commonality with the Ariane 6 and to increase its payload capacity to close the gap between it and the Europeanized Soyuz.


There is one potentially revolutionary project that is worth pointing out.  Not long after Airbus Safran announced that the forthcoming Ariane 6 rocket would use liquids propellants (LOX and Hydrogen) instead of the solid boosters initially proposed, they also put out a cartoon demonstration of how the first stage engine may be landed using turboprops and stubby delta wings.  The concept is called Adeline and it’s a novel re-usable booster plane that achieves cost savings by saving the most expensive parts of the overall launch stack (the engine, associated plumbing and things like COPV’s for gas storage).

Further, it lets Airbus Safran build different size fuel and oxidizer tanks for different mission profiles to spare the expense of launching full-size tanks for smaller missions.  This could really drive down costs on the lower end of the launch market but this strategy has a few problems that need to be worked around.  Producing different-sized tanks requires multiple production lines, which are expensive to set up.  A lot of machine tools can be reused between different sized tank production lines but not all of them.  It also doesn’t get around the problem that many observers point out vis a vis SpaceX – reuse imposes a performance penalty.

The Adeline configuration as presented also forces the Ariane 6 to be able to use only 2 solid propellant boosters out of the 4 it could otherwise utilize in order to make room for the wings and landing engines.  Additionally, the extra mass of the wings, turboprop engines, thermal protection system, disconnect machinery, aerodynamic front-end covers and reserve fuel will further subtract from the payload capacity of the Ariane 6.

I haven’t come across any articles showing that the various European governmental agencies are funding the research and development of this project so I naturally tend to discount it as a real possibility over the next ten years.  However, the European Commission recently authorized the restructuring of the major European rocket manufacturing entities (resulting in the creation of Airbus Safran out of various components of parent corporations – much like ULA is a joint venture of parents Lockheed Martin and Boeing). The explicit purpose of this restructuring was to give the commercial sector more authority to control the design process to push innovation and bring down costs.  It’s entirely conceivable that Airbus Safran is quietly working on this project in the background with their own money while they use public funds solely for the development of the ‘normal’ configurations of the Ariane 6 that do not incorporate re-usability.

I was able to find the cartoon illustration of Adeline but the link I found is not credited to Airbus Safran even though I’m quite sure that’s where it came from.  Also, I’d warn you to turn down your speakers or mute the Youtube window because this video features awful elevator music that will make you want to detach your ears and fly themselves back to the launch pad.  I’m pretty sure it’s a generic tune that the uploader is using to skirt DCMA restrictions but regardless of origin, it’s the worst.

Credit: Youtube Rando that re-uploaded the video after Airbus Safran took it down.

Ariane 6

The current version of Ariane 6 that we know is being funded for development is an incremental upgrade over the Ariane 5 rather than a revolutionary semi-reusable booster system.  The two solid rocket motors in the Ariane A62 variant are upgrades over the SLB-derived versions used by the Ariane 5.  The core stage will be powered by a Vulcain 2 engine (hydrogen and oxygen propellants) and the second stage will be powered by the Vinci engine (also hydrolox).  It’s worth noting that this is very similar to the stack used by the Ariane 5 although these stages will be horizontally integrated rather than vertically to save costs.  A different version of the Ariane 6 (the A64 variant) will employ 4 solid rocket boosters to allow larger payload masses which is something the Ariane 5 cannot do.

The Ariane 6 is promised to deliver lower launch costs (Arianespace claims about half) relative to the Ariane 5 though it pursues largely the same market strategy with dual-payload launches.  The Ariane 6 will have a lower birth for a small to medium-sized satellite and an upper birth for a heavier one just like its older sibling.  This strategy helped Arianespace capture a significant chunk of the commercial launch market from international competitors but price pressures have caused a lot of commercial contracts (particularly for the smaller lower birth slots) to be lost to SpaceX.  It will be interesting to see if the lower prices for the Ariane 6 relative to its predecessor will reverse this trend.

Ariane 5

This workhorse will continue serving the commercial launch market and international space exploration missions until the Ariane 6 is introduced.  I don’t see any more large upgrades coming for this rocket, especially compared to the upgrades it has already received while in service.  I also don’t expect them to lower their prices or significantly increase their launch cadence either as that would take a large infrastructural investment – money which is already going toward Ariane 6 development.  The Europeans don’t really have to do either of those things for the Ariane 5 either; they are booked well into the future for launch slots on this booster given their track record of reliable, on-time launches.

Thrust vector control gone awry.  Arianespace learned from this mistake and now have one of the most reliable vehicles on the market.

Europeanized Soyuz

Arianespace buys Soyuz rockets from Russia, and launches them out of French Guiana.

Soyuz 2 launching out of French Guyana.  Image Credit: ESA

The media calls this arrangement the ‘Europeanized Soyuz’ and it fills the payload niche between the Vega and Ariane 5/6 for medium sized, single payloads or multiple smaller-sized payloads for European civil missions and the commercial market. The Russians are flying a very similar configuration themselves out of Baikonur in Kazakhstan and Plesetsk and Vostochny in Russia.  This rocket constitutes a modest upgrade from the myriad of Soyuz variants that the Russians have been flying for decades.  As I talked about in part one of this series, the Angara rocket family was supposed to retire the Soyuz lines but commitments to Europe and the ISS will likely keep Soyuz flying for at least the next decade if not beyond.

The Russians pioneered the technique of horizontal integration with the Soyuz.  The Europeans will be using this cost-saving strategy when they begin building Ariane 6’s.  Stacking rockets together this way saves a lot of money overall as it is just easier to build things closer to the ground.  Image Credit: NASA
ATV to Orion.PNG
The ATV used by the ESA to resupply the ISS is being adapted into the service module of the Orion for NASA.  It pains me to write one sentence with four acronyms but there it is.

While it won’t be used to resupply the ISS anymore, the ATV lives on as the service module of the Orion space capsule.  This guarantees it at least one free-return trajectory around the moon with an unmanned Orion capsule.  Depending on the priorities of the Trump administration’s NASA, it could see many more cis-lunar flights, including missions to an asteroid that NASA is planning to lasso and bring to a distant retrograde Lunar orbit for manned investigation.  Earlier this year there was some production hiccups that threatened to delay delivery of Orion service module testing units but I believe that has been sorted out and should not affect the schedule of the EM-1 mission (first unmanned cislunar flight of the Orion).  That mission has repeatedly delayed for problems unrelated to the European contribution.


The Vega is Arianespace’s rocket for smaller payloads. It has 3 solid rocket motor stages with a  fourth stage provided by Ukraine that is derived from the SS-18 ICBM payload injection system.  The Europeans have re-purposed a system designed to guide nuclear warheads to detonation over American and European cities into a peaceful satellite-delivery system, which is pretty awesome.

This RD-843 from Ukraine provides final orbital parameter tweaking for the Vega launcher.  Image Credit: Yuzhnoye State Design Office

The Vega’s first stage (the P-80) was derived from Ariane 5’s solid rocket boosters which were in turn derived from a French submarine launched ballistic missile system.  In the future, this stage will be replaced by an upgraded P-120 booster which will also be used as boosters for the Ariane 6.

Using the larger booster will provide savings for the industrial consortium that builds Vega and create justification for opening more production lines in various EU member states.  It will also largely close the gap between the services provided by Arianespace between the current Vega variant and the Soyuz which launch small and medium payloads, respectively.


H-2A and H-2B

The H-2A and H-2B rockets built by an industrial consortium headed by Mitsubishi will be retired in the next decade assuming that development of their lower-cost replacement (the H3) continues at pace.  The Japanese already took steps to consolidate their rocket manufacturing base under the leadership of Mitsubishi to bring down costs back in 2007 and they plan further cost-saving measures in the immediate future.

The H-2A launches civil missions for the Japanese government and a handful of commercial and civil missions of other governments.  The larger H-2B currently only caries the HTV vehicle to resupply the ISS.  The H-2B has notably never suffered a launch failure while the H-2A has only suffered a single loss.

The first and second stages of both of these rockets use LOX and H2 propellants for their LE-7A and LE-5B rocket engines (first and second stages respectively).  The main differences between the rockets are in the type of solid rocket motors used (larger on the H-2B) and the fact that the H-2B launches with dual LE-7A engines on the first stage instead of the single engine used for the H-2A.  These are both capable vehicles but their high price and low production cadence (coupled with a ‘buy Japanese’ preference for Japanese civil launches) have kept these rockets from wider selection by private international corporations.

The H3.  Image Credit: JAXA

The H3 vehicle is a more powerful and cheaper variant of its predecessors.  All variants of it will be built entirely by Japanese companies (some H-2A variants use solid rocket motors provided by Orbital ATK of the USA) and the price has been stated to be in the $50-65 million dollar range.  With Mitsubishi having more control over the initial design and build-up of the production infrastructure than they did during development of the earlier vehicles we can expect the rocket to be introduced close to this price point and in greater numbers.  As such, this rocket should pick up some foreign commercial launches after its introduction in the 2020 time-frame.

This HTV is about to berth with the ISS.  Image Credit: NASA

The Japanese barter for access to the ISS with the HTV resupply vehicle.  The White Stork, as its known in Japanese, has twice been the first vehicle to replenish the ISS following resupply launch failures.  In August of 2015, the HTV brought up supplies following the failure of the CRS-7 Dragon mission to the ISS and just this last week it brought up supplies following a recent Russian Progress resupply mission failure.

The HTV can carry 5,200 kg of pressurized and 1,500 kg of unpressurized cargo to the ISS.  This makes it one of the larger resupply vehicles currently servicing the space station which offsets its low flight cadence of about once every 18 months.  JAXA (the Japanese Aerospace eXploration Agency) is developing a lower cost variant of the HTV called the HTV-X.  This, coupled with lower launch costs on the H3 may allow for an expansion of the Japanese presence at the ISS.

The Epsilon small rocket launching out of Tageshima

The Epsilon is the Japanese version of Vega.  It is a small, primarily solid-fueled design that has flown once out of Tanegashima.  It has a variant with a small liquid-fueled payload injection system just like the Vega.  There is not a lot of information on this rocket out there but the link provided to the JAXA site is worth checking out.  It is also due to launch for a second time on December 20th.  One neat feature of this rocket is the extensible second stage skirt it uses.  I am unaware of any other solid rockets that feature this design feature though it is very possible that some ICBM’s have employed it.  The Delta IV uses a similar system for its upper stage engine as will the Ariane 6 but those are both LOX/H2 engines.

Ground test of the second stage nozzle skirt extension mechanism for the Epsilon.

I believe that JAXA is working on a manned space program at some level but this is not widely reported on in English-speaking media outlets.  There have also been efforts over the years by JAXA (and its predecessors) to produce manned space shuttles and other new rockets but all of the efforts have ended in cancellation.

The next issue in this series will cover current and in-development rockets from the various American entities.  There’s so much development going on between NASA and the various American rocket manufacturers right now that this next topic may have to be split up into parts in order to keep a reasonable article launch cadence.


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