The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced its next phase of development in the shape of two major projects: the next-generation Ariane 6 launcher and the Euclide dark-matter telescope.
The concept of Ariane 6 – the rocket designed to secure Europe's independent and sustainable access to space after 2020 – has been approved, meaning industry stakeholders have been given the green light to advance the design.
The rocket, capable of delivering to geostationary transfer orbit a payload of up to 6.5 tonnes, will be built on the legacy of its predecessor Ariane 5 ME and the lightweight launcher Vega.
The innovative Multi P linear concept, approved at ESA’s ministerial council in November 2012, is expected to utilise a sequence of stages powered by solid and cryogenic propellants and will probably exploit the cryogenic re-ignitable upper stage of Ariane 5ME.
Each of Ariane 6’s four engines will carry around 135 tonnes of solid propellant. Three engines, arranged in an in-line position, will serve as the first propelling stage, with the fourth engine mounted above being ignited afterwards as the second stage.
The third stage will be an adapted version of the Ariane 5 ME upper stage, equipped with the Vinci engine and specific propellant tanks.
The 5.4m-diameter payload fairing will be able to accommodate the same volume of satellites as Ariane 5 and, similarly to its predecessor, will serve governmental and commercial customers alike.
The concept has been selected after six months of trade-off studies conducted by industrial teams from across Europe, including Astrium, Avio, Herakles, Safran and MT Aerospace.
At the same time, ESA has announced moving forward in the construction of the agency’s mission Euclid, with Thales Alenia Space being named the prime contractor. Euclid, foreseen to launch about the same time as Ariane 6 – in 2020 – will study the role dark energy and dark matter played in the evolution of the Universe since the Big Bang and how they accelerate the Universe’s expansion.
In June, it was announced the construction of Euclide’s telescope and optical bench with scientific instruments will be led by Astrium Toulouse.
Dark matter is invisible to normal telescopes, but acts through gravity to play a vital part in forming galaxies and slowing the expansion of the Universe. Dark energy, on the other hand, causes a force that overcomes gravity and that is accelerating the expansion seen around us today. Together, they are thought to comprise 95 per cent of the total amount of mass and energy in the Universe, with ‘normal’ matter – from which stars, planets and we humans are made – making up the remaining small fraction. But their nature remains a profound mystery.
“We are pleased to confirm the prime contractor for this exciting mission. With the support of European space industry, we are a step closer to revealing the darkest secrets of the Universe,” says Professor Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s director of science and robotic exploration.
“This is a long-awaited milestone after the mission concept was first proposed to ESA in 2007, and we are delighted to see that the spacecraft construction can now begin,” says Yannick Mellier, who leads the Euclid consortium, comprising scientists from 13 European countries and the US.
The consortium will provide Euclid’s two state-of-the art scientific instruments: a visible-light camera and a near-infrared camera/spectrometer. Together, they will map the 3D distribution of up to two billion galaxies spread over more than a third of the whole sky.