Space-launcher companies, which put satellites, cargo and humans in space, are seeking to bring prices down 50 percent or more.
In April, SpaceX landed the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket back on a drone barge about 200 miles off the U.S. Atlantic coast. It has since made two other successful landings, after sending payloads into the upper atmosphere. It will try again on June 14.
Long considered a brash upstart nipping at the heels of staid aerospace giants, SpaceX is coming of age 14 years after it was founded by Musk with the lofty — and many have said unrealistic — goal of revolutionizing spacecraft and colonizing Mars. SpaceX is now within striking distance of becoming dominant in the payload business. It says it plans to fly 18 missions this year, triple the number in 2015.
The California-based company said it plans to use a previously-flown Falcon 9 booster stage later this year and cut the flight price further down from the current $61 million it says it charges for commercial payloads. Arianespace, one of the world’s biggest commercial satellite launchers, which will use the Ariane 6, claims its prices will be close to those of SpaceX.
The space industry represents 38,000 jobs in Europe, most of them in France, according to Aerospace Defense Industries, an industry group.
The space payload launcher market is a $6 billion global market.
While the cost of re-usable rockets, technical hurdles and market viability have yet to be tested, Le Gall says Musk is well advanced and that Europe must move faster.
On June 1, the CNES and Airbus Safran Launchers — Europe’s biggest space company — unveiled an engine project, dubbed “Prometheus,” which will make the future Ariane 6 rocket reusable and send payloads in space for a quarter of the price offered by the current launcher, Ariane 5. The engine will be first tested in 2020. The problem for Europe is that while SpaceX is already testing its reusable rockets and slashing prices, a reusable Ariane 6 is just a glimmer in the eyes of scientists.
“What we want it is to stand ready should re-usability become a reality,” Le Gall said, pledging to ask European partners for more than the current 100 million euros ($115 million) the region has so far earmarked for the program.
French space minister Thierry Mandon is seeking European support in developing a reusable, liquid-oxygen, liquid-methane engine called Promethee (Prometheus).
Asked if Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX’s recent multiple successes in landing its Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage constituted a decisive step forward in the race to the future, Mandon said:
“They have achieved multiple successes in recovery, which is only the beginning of the process. Now they’ve got the stages back – very good. The next challenge is: How do you use them again? I don’t know if we’re too late, or behind, but I do know we need to move forward and Promethee – Prometheus – is a good way to go about this.”
What sometimes passes for French arrogance in translation is often an attempt by French officials to dispel fears – often expressed in the press here — that they are falling behind and that the game, in effect, is over.
5-7 Prometheus engines could power the first stage of a future Ariane rocket, each costing 1 million euros ($1.13 million) apiece, compared to the 10-million-euro cost of the single Vulcain cryogenic engine that now powers the Ariane 5 first stage along with two solid-fueled strap-on boosters.
Vulcain is powered by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.
The Ariane 6 rocket – designed to be one-half the cost of Ariane 5 – is on track to a 2020 launch. It will use a single Vulcain as well, with two or four solid-fueled boosters depending on mission requirements.
Jean-Marc Astorg, director of launchers at the French space agency said additive manufacturing and other technology-design improvements could cut in half, to five years, rocket propulsion development work that a decade ago would have taken 10 years.
Astorg said CNES and other Prometheus program officials would need to spend considerable time studying how the way liquid methane works in a propulsion system.
Spacex Will Continue to Race Ahead to lower costs
The modified Spacex Falcon 9 can get as cheap as $1233 per pound to launch to low earth orbit. The larger Spacex Falcon Heavy could reach $750 per pound to launch to low earth orbit.
Spacex is developing more advanced Raptor engines.
Raptor is the first member of a family of cryogenic methane-fueled rocket engines under development by SpaceX. It is specifically intended to power high-performance lower and upper stages for SpaceX super-heavy launch vehicles. The engine will be powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen (LOX), rather than the RP-1 kerosene and LOX used in all previous Falcon 9 rockets, which use Merlin 1C and 1D engines. Earlier concepts for Raptor would have used liquid hydrogen (LH2) fuel rather than methane.
The broader Raptor concept “is a highly reusable methane staged-combustion engine that will power the next generation of SpaceX launch vehicles designed for the exploration and colonization of Mars”
- 3D printing of rocket parts could enable engine designs with simpler designs and few parts. This could ultimately contribute to reducing launch costs by 50%.
- The reuse of the first rocket stage could reduce costs by about 40% initially.
- Full reusability of all rocket stages could reduce launch costs by 100 times.
Here are the estimated costs for one use and partially reusable and more reusable Spacex rockets.
One use Falcon 9 rocket launch cost $1233/lb (Low earth orbit)
One use Falcon Heavy launch cost $750/lb
The above costs are recently updated costs from the Spacex website.
SpaceX intends to cut the price of a Falcon 9 rocket launch by up to 30 percent when flying with reused first stage booster
First stage reusable Falcon 9 launch cost $860/lb
First stage reusable Falcon Heavy launch cost $525/lb
The cost of fuel and the Spacex rockets has been repeated a few times.
Fuel is only 0.3 percent of the total cost of a rocket, with construction materials accounting for no more than 2 percent of the total cost, which for the Falcon 9 is about $60 million.
Musk said that a rocket’s first stage accounts for three-quarters of its total price tag, so a vehicle with a reusable first stage can be produced at far less cost — assuming the hardware is fully and rapidly reusable.
A reusable rocket stage would be able to launch about 80% of the cargo of a one use rocket. The weight of fuel is needed to fly the stage back and the extra weight of landing legs and other modifications for reuse have to be carried.
Two launches with second reusing the first stage.
Capital cost – 1.25 times the cost of one full rocket.
0.6% for fuel
Launch cargo 1.6 times the cargo of one rocket.
78% of the cost of a single use rocket
Three launches with reuse of the first stage twice.
Capital cost – 1.5 times the cost of one rocket
0.9% for fuel
Launch cargo 2.4 times the cargo of one rocket
62.5% of the cost of a single use rocket
50% of the cost with five launches and four reuses of the first stage [$617 per pound for the new falcon 9 and $375 per pound for the heavy]
Reusable first stage falcon heavy [with about twenty reuses] can get down to about $250/lb [one third the one use price].
Reusable (about fifteen times) Falcon 9 rocket launch cost all stages reusable $120/lb [all three stages of a falcon heavy, should get to about ten times cheaper]
Besides the reusable Promethee Engine, Nextbigfuture believes the Reaction Engine Skylon Spaceplane will be fully funded to give Europe another chance to get reusable space launch in the 2020s
In 2015, the United States’ Air Force Research Laboratory (‘AFRL’) confirmed the feasibility of the UK Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (‘SABRE’) engine cycle concept. In late 2015 / early 2016, BAE Systems invested £20.6 million in Reaction Engines to acquire 20 per cent of its share capital and also enter into a working partner relationship.
BAE Systems will collaborate to accelerate Reaction Engines’ development of SABRE – a new aerospace engine class that combines both jet and rocket technologies with the potential to revolutionize hypersonic flight and the economics of space access.
SABRE is an advanced combined cycle air-breathing rocket engine. This new class of aerospace engine is designed to enable aircraft to operate from standstill on the runway to speeds of over five times the speed of sound in the atmosphere. SABRE can then transition to a rocket mode of operation, allowing spaceflight at speeds up to orbital velocity, equivalent to twenty five times the speed of sound.
Reaction Engines has gotten UK and EU funding of about $100 million.
Reaction Engines has the potential to create a low cost reusable spaceplane which would be competitive with reusable Spacex vehicles.
Location of the pre-cooler in the Skylon engine
SOURCES – Space News, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Reaction Engines, Spacex
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
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