Payload study could force European rocket rethink

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The European Space Agency’s Tomorrow’s Bird project could see a rethink of the organisation’s Future Launcher Preparatory Programme, which aims to develop an Ariane 5 replacement by 2020. The 15-month industry study into payload technology should start later this year, following a tender process expected to begin in May.

Past launcher development assumed satellites would become larger, but that trend has reached a plateau in recent years. Small and “micro” satellites have instead become increasingly popular.

“We are looking at telecommunication satellites in the 2015-20 timeframe. Marketing studies don’t work that far out. We are looking at the promising technologies,” says project manager Giorgio Soccaccia, head of propulsion at ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre. “We have to imagine what a platform might look like. This will be the payload the future launcher will have to launch.” Three important technological areas he identifies are electric propulsion, smart structures and thin-film solar arrays. With advanced electric propulsion, a launch vehicle may not need an upper stage. Soccaccia expects electric propulsion to mature in the next 20 years and possibly enable ion drive-propelled satellites to boost themselves into the correct orbit.