Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Airbus Unveils its Response to the Falcon 9 Reusable

          By Brian Orlotti

Munich-based Airbus Defence and Space (Airbus) has unveiled a reusable version of its Ariane rocket in an attempt to compete with California-based SpaceX's Falcon 9 reusable.

But despite claims to a superior product, Airbus statements regarding their new design study simply affirm SpaceX's status as the current trailblazer of the space industry.

ADELINE launch system. Graphic c/o Leo Delauncey/ Mail Online.

As outlined in the June 5th, 2015 Space News article, "Meet Adeline, Airbus’ Answer To SpaceX Reusability," the new Airbus launcher concept, called the Advanced Expendable Launcher with INnovative engine Economy (ADELINE) differs significantly from SpaceX's vehicle in that it combines elements  of both rocketry and aircraft.

An ADELINE would launch into orbit, then detach its upper stages to deploy a payload like a traditional rocket. The lower stage (containing the rocket's engine) would then fly back to base using twin turboprop engines mounted in a pair of wings and land on a runway like an airplane. This contrasts with SpaceX's method of relying solely on the rocket's engine to power the return flight and then landing vertically on a water or land-based site.

Words of wisdom applicable to a wide variety of situations and circumstances. Photo and caption, c/o One Tusk.

Airbus' key goal is to recover the first stage which contains the engine, avionics and propulsion bay, and which together comprise 80 percent of the rocket's total value, enabling significant cost savings. Airbus estimates that ADELINE can achieve savings of 20-30% on recurring launch costs. Airbus also says that ADELINE's turboprop engines will enable it to return to Earth with half the fuel needed by (and with less of a performance hit than) SpaceX's vehicle. ADELINE project manager Benoit Isaac stated:
This is our way of showing that it’s not just America that knows how to innovate. We can innovate here in Europe as well and we want our 140,000 colleagues in the rest of Airbus to know about it.
For all of Airbus's spirited rhetoric, ADELINE's challenge to SpaceX comes up short. Airbus has allotted ADELINE a total budget of just €5Mln EUR ($7CDN CDN) and no hardware (aside from a small powered prototype of the first stage) has been built.

Francois Auque, head of Airbus’s Space Systems division has stated that the firm's focus is on producing its new Ariane 6 rocket, an expendable launcher set to debut in 2020 at a cost of €90Mln EUR ($125.5Mln CDN) per launch.

Ariane 6 is our absolute top priority,” Auque said. “Adeline comes afterwards.” While marching forward with its left foot, Airbus' right remains stuck in the past.

Airbus promotional video showing the flight profile of the ADELINE reusable launcher.

Airbus' unveiling of ADELINE, far from causing trouble for SpaceX, has instead marked its ascendance. While SpaceX's innovations have spurred its rivals to adapt, those same rivals are shackled by shareholders, existing supply chains, legacy hardware and conflicting agendas. SpaceX's vertical integration and single leader pursuing a singular vision give the company a unique freedom.

Brian Orlotti.
SpaceX's road ahead lays wide open.

Brian Orlotti is a network operations centre analyst at Shomi, a Canadian provider of on-demand internet streaming media and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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