Expendable launcher makers are trying to keep their concept alive

Andrzej Jeziorski/PARIS

Amid predictions of a satellite launch boom in the coming decade, space industry executives, financiers and insurers from around the world gathered in Paris in May for the first world summit on the space transportation business.

Organiser Euroconsult predicted a satellite launch market between 1998 and 2007 worth $45.6-55.6 billion at last year's prices. According to executive vice-president for space and communications Rachel Villain, demand will average 132-163 satellite launches annually in this period, compared with an average 46 a year in the preceding decade.

The market will be dominated by heavier satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO), accounting for 24% of the market in satellite numbers, but 44% in terms of tonnage and about 58% in revenue terms, says Villain. Commercial satellites will account for 78% of GEO launches, 70% of low earth orbit (LEO) launches and about 59% of medium and high earth orbit markets.

But the predicted growth is hampered by recent failures - such as the Lockheed Martin Titan IVB and Boeing Delta III losses, as well as in-orbit spacecraft malfunctions - which have hit insurers hard and triggered alarm bells among financiers. It is also threatened by new US Government export controls and the March transfer of authority for export licence decisions from the US Commerce Department to the State Department, slowing down the decision process, evoking protests from industry and doubts among US Congressmen.

The move arose from the recent furore over China tapping US defence secrets and fears that technology applicable to missile programmes was being transferred to China via satellite launch co-operation. Industry officials complain that the change hinders exports of satellite parts. Permission is being denied to ship components that have been exported for years.

"The transfer is bad news for everybody," says Liu Zhixiong, vice-president of China Great Wall Industry, which markets the Long March launcher. He adds that the US Government risks losing the Chinese launch market to European companies. Insurers complain that new regulations make it more difficult to access information - making it difficult to insure projects.

Space insurers took a beating last year. Brigitte Vienne, vice-president for finance and risk management at Arianespace, says there was a 200% loss ratio in space insurance. "The events of early 1999 are not favourable," she adds. The first five months of this year saw $300 million in claims - treble the premiums paid - says Guy Lallour, manager of the international business risk department at French insurer AGF.

This makes reliability a crucial selling point for launch service providers today. It is a key consideration in new launch vehicle programmes, and in developments of existing ones - be they reusable or expendable launch vehicles (ELVs). To stay ahead, the main ELV manufacturers are developing new versions of established vehicles.

In May, Arianespace was granted 533 million euros ($557 million) of European Space Agency (ESA) funding for its Ariane 5 Plus development programme up to 2001. A further 25 million euros was granted for infrastructure work, and 134 million euros to ensure the launcher remains competitive. Ministers representing the ESA nations also stipulated that Ariane 5 development costs should be cut by 10%.

Ariane 5's planned evolution will increase the launcher's performance, step by step, from a 5.9t geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) capability to an 11t GTO performance.

Improvements will include the introduction of the Vulcain Mk II cryogenic engine, which will increase payload capability to 7.25t by 2002. In about 2003, Arianespace plans to introduce a re-ignitable liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen upper stage to increase GTO performance up to 9t. By 2005, the company should introduce a more powerful cryogenic upper stage, taking the launcher's payload capability to 11t.

The Ariane 5 development efforts are intended specifically to counter the introduction into service of the US Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) - the Boeing Delta IV and the Lockheed Martin Atlas V. These will enter service in 2001, offering GTO payloads up to nearly 15t for the Heavy versions. The two vehicles have a combined commitment from the US Air Force for 31 launches between 2003 and 2010, with 60% on the Delta IV.

The Boeing EELV will have a common core booster (CCB)with a Rocketdyne RS-68 liquid oxygen/kerosene engine. The three variants will have different second stages: an Aerojet AJ-10-118K for the Small EELV, offering 2.18t to GTO; and a Pratt & Whitney RL10B-2-powered stage for the 4.54t to GTO Medium EELV. The 14.9t to GTO Heavy EELV will have three CCBs as the first stage, with a modified Delta III second stage.

The Atlas V variant will have a CCB powered by a Russian NPO Energomash/Pratt & Whitney RD-180 liquid oxygen/kerosene engine. The Small EELV version, carrying up to 1.84t to GTO, will have an uprated Atlantic Research Agena 2000 second stage. The Medium EELV variant will have an improved Centaur second stage, giving it 3.85t to GTO performance. The Heavy EELV version will again have a first stage comprising three CCBs, with a Centaur upper stage. This should give it a 6.12t to GTO capability.

"This is our future," says Will Trafton, president of International Launch Services, the US-Russian joint venture which markets commercial launches using the Atlas family and the Khrunichev Proton launcher.

Japan, too, is working on an improved version of its ELV, the Rocket Systems H-2A, which is due to fly for the first time early next year, launching ESA's Advanced Relay and Technology Mission satellite. But the H-2A programme is intended to cut the price of H-2 launches to competitive levels.

The new vehicle will have simplified avionics and a new second stage, with separated liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen tank structures and a new LE-5B engine. The first stage is being modified, simplifying manufacture and replacing the LE-7 engine with the cheaper LE-7A.

The LE-5B second stage engine is to be tested in H-2 number 8, due to launch the Japanese Government's MT-SAT navigation satellite in mid-year.

The basic H-2A offers GTO performance with up to a 4t payload. Four heavier derivatives are proposed, with strap-on solid rocket boosters (SRBs). The heaviest variants will have an additional liquid rocket booster. The H-2A212 will be able to launch 7.5t into GTO with two SRBs and a liquid booster. A heavier variant, with a second liquid booster, is being considered, but this will depend on customer demand.

China Great Wall is also looking at heavier launch capabilities for its LEO Long March, with the LM-2E/A derivative of the LM-2E. The upgrade is to boost payload and increase reliability. According to Liu, the new derivative will be able to launch a 12.9t payload to LEO, compared with the LM-2E's 9.2t limit. It will also have a bigger, 5.2m, fairing, using a new encapsulation method, integrating the spacecraft and adaptor with the fairing in the spacecraft processing building, rather than at the launch pad.

Liu is targeting 95% reliability for the variant and aims for a first launch late next year and entry into commercial service in 2001.

China Great Wall is also looking at the longer-term development of a new, boosted, single-stage LEO vehicle with a 24t capacity, and a boosted two-stage GTO launcher capable of carrying up to 13t. These will be operational in about five to 10 years, says Liu.

A private company proposes an all-new, privately funded, launch vehicle. The Beal Aerospace BA-2, under development, is designed to carry 5.8t to GTO, and could fly by early 2001 (Flight International, 26 May-1 June).

Beal is a solitary advocate of the expendable philosophy. Others seeking to get into the business believe the future lies in reusable vehicles - so projects being developed by ELV companies could be the expendables' last hurrah.

Source: Flight International