The European Space Agency, whose director general Jean-Jacques Dordain has described 2011 as ESA's "year of launchers", pushed that vision into the future by signing the Astrium-Avio-Snecma propulsion team to extend to a firing demonstration its work on a high-thrust cryogenic engine that could form the basis of ESA's next-generation launcher.

It will not fly until about 2025, but is intended to provide a medium-lift capability in a modular design, with a re-ignitable upper stage and options for strap-on solid propellant boosters offering extra thrust.

ESA director of launchers Antonio Fabrizi said the basic configuration has yet to be decided, but that it is important to push ahead with this €60 million demonstration phase - work has been ongoing since 2007 - "to have something more complete" to evaluate.

Dordain, meanwhile, is increasingly confident that the planned 20 October maiden flight of a Soyuz rocket from ESA's spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana - carrying the first two Galileo navigation satellites - will go as planned. That 3.5-tonne launcher will be supplemented by the end of the year with the maiden flight of ESA's light, 1.5-tonne Vega rocket, preparations for which continue on course, said Dordain.

Moving from one launcher - the 10-tonne heavy-lift Ariane 5 - to three vastly improves ESA's launch capabilities.

Dordain said discussions are under way with European governments regarding future developments, including a "Europeanised" Vega evolution and the formal approval to undertake the long-awaited Ariane 5 mid-life upgrade, which would boost payload capacity beyond the current 10 tonnes to geostationary orbit.

Source: Flight International