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ESA Completes Important Step Toward Vega Launcher 158

Sven-Erik writes "ESA is reporting that 'An important step forward has just been made in the development of ESA's Vega launcher. After several months' work at the Guiana Propellant Plant at Europe's Spaceport the inert casting of the main Vega motor has been successfully carried out.' The 30-meter tall Vega launcher will be capable of placing a 1.5 ton payload into polar orbit, and it is scheduled for its first launch in 2006 from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana, where the Ariane 1 launch facilities are being adapted for its use. It will be a perfect complement to ESA's large Ariane 5 and the medium-classed Soyuz."
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ESA Completes Important Step Toward Vega Launcher

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  • Why not fuel free? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Prof.Phreak ( 584152 ) on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @05:05AM (#9301653) Homepage
    Is anyone researching fuel free launches?

    I mean things like shooting the payload from a cannon or something... ...or possibly using a HUGE rubber band to send a capsule flying into space.

    As long as we need 100*X pounds of fuel to launch X pounds into space, space travel will remain uneconomical for most purposes.
  • Polar orbit? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Eric Smith ( 4379 ) * on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @05:34AM (#9301730) Homepage Journal
    Is a polar orbit useful for anything other than military payloads? If they can get a 1.5 tonne payload into a polar orbit, how massive a payload can they get into a more non-polar LEO?

    The Space Shuttle's delta wing design was based on a requirement from the military that it be capable of polar orbit. But they've never used it for that. If they'd just told the military to get lost, they could have used a better design. Sigh.

  • Re:Useless (Score:2, Interesting)

    by dekeji ( 784080 ) on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @05:39AM (#9301739)
    I think Europe just wants a complete complement of space technologies at their disposal; they don't want to depend on either the Americans or the Chinese to provide it for them, neither for research satellites nor for military ones.
  • Re:A step backward (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mrright ( 301778 ) <rudi@lambda-computing. c o m> on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @05:45AM (#9301759) Homepage
    To back up my assertion that the vega is not competitive: here are a few launch prices:
    The vega [] is supposed to cost 20 million USD for a payload of 1500kg to LEO. The Falcon I will cost 6 million USD for a payload of 700kg to a similar orbit, and the Falcon V will cost 12 million USD and have a payload of 4200kg to LEO.

    So commercially vega will be a complete desaster. The only payloads that will go to vega will be government payloads that can not go to falcon for reasons of national prestige.

    On the other hand, vega is a decent ICBM with MIRV capability.
  • by lingqi ( 577227 ) on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @05:51AM (#9301770) Journal
    i know you are kidding, but there are fuel free research. some almost exact replicas of Verne's canon. Of course, since you have to travel through dense atmosphere for a _long_time_, 7.9km/s is not nearly enough.

    And the payload would go through something like 10,000G through the acceleration phase. I think they are suggesting that electronics can generally handle this, which is surprising to me.

    AND the payload would burn through about five inches of ablative.

    I think the current technical problem they are facing is to get the huge acceleration out of the canon - because chemical charges can not ever get you the muzzle velocity, probably ever. So now you are in the realm of railguns. don't expect to see payloads shot up this way for a few years. =)

    but, like i said, there are ideas floating around about it.
  • by lxt ( 724570 ) on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @06:14AM (#9301829) Journal
    "OK, so there have been failed ESA projects (NASA/Russians have also failed more than once if I'm not mistaken), Beagle 2 being the latest (however it is often forgotten here that Mars Express was the real purpose of the mission). So yeah, they might be wasting my tax Euros. I wish they'd waste more!"

    I agree with you completely - however, just to point out that I believe Beagle 2 was not funded by the ESA...of course, clearly some money from the ESA went towards Beagle 2 due to the cost of adpating Mars Express and payload launch costs, but I think the probe itself wasn't funded by ESA.

    Which leaves even more money to spend on other exciting ESA projects - people may be complaining about how VEGA is "useless", but would they rather the ESA not invest money in space technology at all?
  • Exactly. The reason why ESA is developing its own line of launchers is because they want to ensure independent European access to space - both for heavy loads (Ariane 5) and lighter loads (Vega). Perhaps ESA will also incorporate the EADS Phoenix shuttle in its launcher family, which would give us independent manned access to space as well. I believe that this is where we might be going, and I would gladly see more money go to European space research. The Aurora programme is especially intriguing.
  • by Timesprout ( 579035 ) on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @06:27AM (#9301859)
    You forget many readers are from the US and they are becoming increasingly concerned that their technological lead in space is being eroded. I think the US really would prefer to have all other countries depend on it for satellite and space access.
  • by Spellbinder ( 615834 ) on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @06:54AM (#9301927)
    what technological lead
    maybe the moon landing?? (if it was real)
    some missions to mars
    the russians are the only ones flying humans to space
    ESA has about 60 % of all comercial payload
    i don't think there is a leader at all
    except maybe in their head
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @07:31AM (#9302011)
    Then why has the ESA been issuing so many statements about trying to keep up with the US?
  • by HenrikOxUK ( 776979 ) on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @07:57AM (#9302093) Homepage
    Make a modern space-plane like the shuttle, and strap it to the back of a modified large commercial jet-aircraft like a 747, as seen here []. Then use the concept used by Scaled Composits [] for SpaceShipOne, to bring the space plane up to a high altitude and release it there. It then continues into orbit using rocket power.

    The trick is that because the shuttle is attached to the TOP of the 747, and not underneath, you have to do a roll and fly upside down for a bit when releasing the shuttle. But that's no problem. Planes can do that; even 747s :)
  • Re:Is it any good? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Vadim Makarov ( 529622 ) <> on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @07:57AM (#9302099) Homepage
    The Soyuz design is a good one because it is proven, and very very simple. No fiddly bits. You could probably launch in a hurricane if you absolutely had to.

    This is because Soyuz booster is based on an early days military design, or should we say multiple-use design. I believe at one time a couple of these boosters were on standby with nuclear warheards attached (until USSR installed better ICBMs). You don't want weather over the launch pad to preclude a nuclear strike, don't you? No wonder the boosters were designed to be all-weather from the beginning.

  • Re:A step backward (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mrright ( 301778 ) <rudi@lambda-computing. c o m> on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @07:59AM (#9302108) Homepage
    Those Falcon launchers sound impressive, but are completely unproven and it remains to be seen how they perform in reality and what the real cost is. Saying that something is "a step backward" from stuff that doesn't exist doesn't make much sense.
    The falcon launchers are just as unproven as the vega launcher. Neither of them has flown, but the engines of both falcon and vega have been tested on test stands.

    And I am totally convinced that using solids for civilian launchers is a major step backward. Imagine having to work on a launch vehicle full of highly explosive propellant. A liquid fueled launch vehicle on the other hand gets fueled on the pad, so as long as it is in the assembly building it is just a bunch of totally inert metal. Even if you can control the risk, the safety precautions make assembling the solid-fueled launcher much more expensive.

    The first falcon I launch will be in this summer, and the first falcon V launch will be in the fall of next year if all goes according to plan. The first vega launch will be in 2006.

    Conspiracy theory time! I wonder what the throw weight is, say, halfway around the globe?
    About three to four tons. But that was just a joke. It could be used as an ICBM though.
  • Re:Why? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mrright ( 301778 ) <rudi@lambda-computing. c o m> on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @09:19AM (#9302462) Homepage
    Property is a central economic institution of any society, and private property is the central institution of a free society.

    That is not true. The RD-170 engines for the boosters are still in production for the zenit sea launch vehicles. And the first stage of the zenit vehicle was used as the booster rockets of the energia. So the only thing you would have to do would be to resume production of the core stage.

    The problem is that there is no demand for such large payloads. But if you gave the russians a few billion USD they could certainly reactivate the energia.

  • Re:Could someone... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Kosmonavt ( 784573 ) on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @09:39AM (#9302595)
    Reasons this story is interesting: Space frontier: A new rocket is developed Economic: It will have to compete with the cheap decommissioned Russian ICBMs Technological: solid fuel (aka firework material) that is harnessed to produce thrust Geekly: the test reported refers to the casting process for the solid fuel using an inert alternative (which? sugar cake - yamm!) Flamebait: another stage for US-European space antagonism Italians in space: it is mostly an Italian project within ESA
  • Re:A step backward (Score:3, Interesting)

    by cheesybagel ( 670288 ) on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @11:34AM (#9303778)
    Conspiracy theory time! I wonder what the throw weight is, say, halfway around the globe?
    About three to four tons. But that was just a joke. It could be used as an ICBM though.

    In case you didn't know about it, some people who work on P230 and P80 also help develop the French M51 SLBMs and manufacture explosives for car airbags. So yeah, solid rocket technology can be used for a log of things. Fear the intercontinental airbags!

  • Re:Economics (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jfoust ( 9271 ) on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @01:31PM (#9305139)

    Wouldn't it be more economical to lauch many small payloads at once using a large rocket, e.g. Ariane 5.

    Contrary to another response, this is as much a logistical issue as anything else: you need to find enough small payloads going to the same orbit at the same time to make this worthwhile. Coordinating this would be a significant challenge, particularly given the paucity of small payloads in general. Arianespace routinely dual-manifests larger communication satellites (that is, launch two at a time on an Ariane 5), and this alone can cause some scheduling complications.

  • Re:Could someone... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by cheesybagel ( 670288 ) on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @06:35PM (#9309510)
    Tell that to the Russian Navy. They just had a misfire of one of their Cold War era manufactured ICBMs a couple of weeks ago. Dnepr, also known as the SS-18 Satan ICBM [], was signed out of use by Reagan and Gorbachev. These launchers are old refurbished ICBMs people.
  • by Christopher Thomas ( 11717 ) on Tuesday June 01, 2004 @08:39PM (#9310503)
    Is anyone researching fuel free launches?

    I mean things like shooting the payload from a cannon or something..

    The main problem is that any reasonable gun size requires thousands of Gs acceleration. That eliminates most cargo options (so you still have to use another launcher type for much of your cargo).

    You're also limited by the atmosphere. While you *could* try to build a 1000-km long human-rated mass driver, you'd be plowing through the atmosphere at Mach Silly for most of the acceleration distance, and for hundreds of kilometres after launch (you're launching at a very shallow angle).

    Techniques that try to deliver energy remotely while using atmosphere or carried mass as reaction mass run into the same problems as scramjets (for the first case) and conventional rockets (for the second case), in addition to requiring a large number of expensive installations for laser launchers or what-have-you.

    Techniques that involve climbing up or being scooped up by an orbiting object require better materials than we can currently manufacture in useful quantities. In 30-50 years, this may change, but it's not a sure thing yet.

    In summary, while there has been and still is a lot of research about fuel-free launch schemes, none of them are practical at this time.

    As long as we need 100*X pounds of fuel to launch X pounds into space, space travel will remain uneconomical for most purposes.

    Not true. Your cargo to craft (mostly fuel) mass ratio is 1:100 at worst. For a fuel as cheap as gasoline (and liquid oxygen is about this cheap in bulk), you get around $100/kg. Not cheap as dirt, but hardly cost-prohibitive. It's the vehicle itself and the facilities that drive the cost.

    The problem is that right now the vehicles and the support facilities cost a _lot_ to build and maintain and staff and insure. This is where most of the money goes. Better materials and mature designs will reduce vehicle costs, which will help increase volume, which will further reduce costs from mass production and facility management scaling for at least a little while, but the cycle proceeds slowly. Give it time.

    The last big experiment (reusable vehicles to save on vehicle costs) failed, due to increased complexity (for all designs), difficulty and expense of between-flight overhauls (for the shuttle), and difficulty meeting craft requirements with existing materials (all reusable craft, but especially SSTO craft). Now the focus seems to have shifted on reducing costs for disposable vehicles. We'll see in a couple of decades how this turns out.

The unfacts, did we have them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude.