Monday, February 06, 2017

Europe Will Fund the Prometheus Reusable Engine; Canada Pitched Cyclone-4's

          By Chuck Black

In a useful reminder that the future of rocketry is reusable, France’s Prometheus reusable engine program will receive funding from the European Space Agency (ESA). The new engine is designed to be a direct competitor to the reusable SpaceX Merlin rocket engine.

The ASL Prometheus rocket engine (right) is a follow-on of the ASL Vulcain 2.1 rocket engine, which ASL designed for its Ariane 6 rocket program. The Prometheus is designed to be cheaper ( €1Mln EUR or $1.41Mln CDN for the Prometheus as compared to 10 times the cost for the Vulcain) and take extensive advantage of new technologies and production methods, including 3-D printing. As outlined in the September 15th, 2016 BBC News post, "Clear path to Ariane 6 rocket introduction," the current Ariane 5 rocket, "although remarkably reliable and consistent in its performance, costs substantially more to build and launch than some of its competitors - in particular, the Falcon 9 rocket operated by SpaceX in the US." Graphic c/o ASL

But that useful reminder is also a shot across the bow of organizations like Maritime Launch Services (MLS), the recently incorporated Nova Scotia based company formed by three US based partners, who are attempting to sell spaceports filled with 45 year old Ukrainian based single use, hypergolic propellant based rocket technology, to a credulous East coast populace.

As outlined in the February 1st, 2017 Space News post, "France’s Prometheus reusable engine becomes ESA project, gets funding boost," ESA leaders "agreed during December’s ministerial conference in Lucerne, Switzerland, to make Prometheus part of the agency’s Future Launchers Preparatory Program (FLPP)."

The article also quoted Airbus Safran Launchers (ASL) CEO Alain Charmeau who said that FLPP will allocate €85Mln EUR ($120Mln CDN) to fund research and development leading to a 2020 test firing of the Prometheus engine.

Now that Prometheus is an ESA program, Charmeau expects more countries will get involved. As an ESA associate member, Canada could certainly participate in the program.

The Ukrainian built Tsyklon-4 (Cyclone-4) rocket and the Yuzhnoye RD-861 engine it uses. The RD-861 engine is a Soviet era liquid propellant rocket burning unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) and nitrogen tetroxide (N2O4) in a gas generator combustion cycle. It is not built to be reusable, but can be restarted once during its flight. As outlined in the September 2nd, 2016 SpaceFlight 101 post, "Ukraine’s Cyclone-4 Rocket seeks North American Launch Base," the "Cyclone-4 is largely based on the Cyclone-3 that itself uses heritage of the Cyclone-2 rocket that first flew in 1967 and made over 120 flights with a good success rate." Graphics and photo's c/o KSP & Dietrich Haeseler.

Canada's other option for funding a rocket launcher, at least for now, comes with substantial concerns over:
  • The Soviet era technology used to build the rockets. 
  • The transportation and storage of the corrosive and extremely toxic hypergolic propellant used for the rocket fuel.
  • The business plan expected to be used to sell the rockets to satellite companies looking for a ride to orbit.
As outlined in the Jan 31st, 2017 CBC News post, "Why a $100M rocket launch site might be coming to Nova Scotia," MLS, a recently incorporated Nova Scotia based company, created by US based partners and using technology designed and built by Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye Design Office, is currently promoting a Nova Scotia launch site for its Cyclone-4 launcher.

MLS is essentially acting as a local agent for Yuzhnoye, which needs at least $100Mln CDN to fund its Cyclone-4 rocket launch facility. MLS CEO John Isella even continues to work out of the Washington, DC Yuzhnoye office, where he also acts as the North American representative for Yuzhnoye business development.

As outlined in the article, once funded, the "first launch could be as soon as late 2019 if all goes according to plan." Of course, those plans don't seem to work out very often.

An SS-18 rocket body in front of Yuzhnoye Design Office headquarters. As outlined on the company website, "Yuzhnoye State Design Office is one of the most well-known and recognized scientific and design companies in the world." Photo c/o Yuzhnoye Design Office.

Cyclone-4 development originally began in 2002, in partnership with the Brazilian Space Agency. The maiden flight was initially scheduled for 2006 from a proposed launch pad at the Alcântara Launch Center in Brazil. 

However, as outlined in the April 16th, 2015 Space News post, "Brazil Pulling Out of Ukrainian Launcher Project," that deal eventually fell apart over escalating costs and questions about Cyclone-4's ability to take market share away from SpaceX and other low cost rocket providers.

Since then, and as outlined in the September 11th, 2016 post, "Ukranian Based Yuzhnoye Design Office Eyeing a Canadian Spaceport for its Cyclone-4 Rocket," Yuzhnoye, and now MLS, have been looking, "for business and investment partners to develop the launch infrastructure and conduct sales, marketing, and mission management."

Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just that Canadian's would be better served by throwing buckets of money at more current, and maybe even a few homegrown designs.

Local NS citizens will make their determination on the Yuzhnoye spaceport sometime in March 2017.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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