This month, the European Commission has revealed a new, three-year project to develop the technologies needed for two proposed reusable launch vehicles. The commission provided € 3 million to the German space agency, DLR, and five companies, in the words of a news release about the project, "tackling the shortcoming of know-how in reusable rockets in Europe."
This new RETALT project's goals are pretty explicit about copying the retro-propulsion engine firing technique used by SpaceX to land its Falcon 9 rocket first stages back on land and on autonomous drone ships. The Falcon 9's ability to land and fly again is "currently dominating the global market," the European project states. "We are convinced that it is absolutely necessary to investigate Retro Propulsion Assisted Landing Technologies to make re-usability state-of-the-art in Europe."
SpaceX began testing supersonic retro-propulsion as far back as September 2013, when the company first flown its upgraded Falcon 9 rocket, v1.1. This involves relighting the rocket's Merlin engines as the Falcon thunders towards Earth through the atmosphere at supersonic speeds.
Initially, SpaceX's rivals looked at the concept of vertically landing rockets, but as the company has racked up dozens of successes – and began to fly the same first stage boosters two and even three times – those attitudes have begun to change. The US-based United Launch Alliance has begun exploring how to reuse its rocket engines, China has several dozen new space companies exploring these types of reuse technologies, and now Europe also seems to have shifted its stance as well
While European space firms have acknowledged SpaceX's success, previously they have indicated that reuse is not a viable option for a continent that only launches five to 10 racquets a year. It would not be sustainable for a European factory to build just one rocket a year, officials said. Instead, the European strategy has been to try and reduce the cost of its flagship Ariane and Vega launchers.
But the attitude of the new RETALT project appears to have indicated European acceptance of the inevitability of reusable racing vehicles. Engineers will work towards two different concepts. The first will be a Falcon-like rocket that will make use of seven modified Vulcain 2 rocket engines and have the capacity to lift up to 30 tons to low-Earth orbit. The second will be a revolutionary single-stage-to-orbit vehicle that looks like the Roton rocket rocket developed by Rotary Rocket about two decades ago
"What is state-of-the-art in the US is only in its beginnings in Europe, "the press release acknowledges. "The consortium is determined to accept the challenge and become important players in this game-changing technology."
Listing image by RETALT