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Recycling

Reusable rocket: SpaceX and Rocket Lab are getting a huge competitor

The race to reuse space rockets is on, and a new, unexpected challenger is emerging.

NASA/Getty Images News/Getty Images

A new challenger is emerging in the race to reuse the rocket.

On Monday, the European Space Agency announced that it had signed new contracts for the development of its Phoebus upper stage and Prometheus rocket engine. The latter component is expected to power Themis, the agency’s planned reusable rocket first stage set to fly in 2023.

The agency’s entry into the new space race is notable, as the race to reuse the rocket has so far been dominated by private companies. Firms like SpaceX and Rocket Lab have worked to reuse as much of the rocket as possible, in a bid to drive down launch prices and make space more accessible to space tourists, satellite makers, scientists, and more.

That means more money for more ambitious projects — like Rocket Lab’s planned probe to Venus or SpaceX’s city on Mars.

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What is the ESA planning? — The European Space Agency signed a €135 million ($165 million) contract to continue the development of Prometheus. This is designed to be a cheaper, reusable rocket engine that will power the Themis rocket.

  • The engine is designed to offer 1,000 kilo-Newtons of variable thrust, or 224,808 pounds. The demonstration version of Themis will use three of these engines, paired with 130 tons of liquid oxygen and methane fuel.
  • The vehicle will measure 98 feet high and 11 feet in diameter.
  • The agency is planning suborbital flight tests with Themis for 2023 at its spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. This is all set to build toward the development of a reusable first stage of a rocket.
The ESA's plan with Themis.ESA

“ESA's involvement shows that reusability is something worth pursuing,” Carter Palmer, an aerospace and defense analyst at aerospace research firm Forecast International, tells Inverse. “Reliability and cost are most important if a launch provider wants to be competitive. Reusability is a way to achieve the cost portion of those factors.”

Lower costs could mean more interest, leading to an opening up of the space industry. Morgan Stanley estimated in 2020 that total global revenue would hit $350 billion that year, a figure that would jump to over $1 trillion in 2040.

Why reuse rockets? — Reusing rockets is seen as a way of reducing the costs around spaceflight, but it’s easier said than done. After all, if you don’t expect your rocket to come back, you don’t need to design for re-entry.

NASA made history in 1981 when it flew the space shuttle for the first time, a reusable spacecraft. While the orbiter itself and the solid rocket boosters were reusable, the large external fuel tank was expendable. A 2011 opinion article on GovTech, written the year the shuttle stopped flying, described it as “expensive, deadly, and an inspiration to all.”

Elon Musk made reusing rockets an early goal for his firm SpaceX. In 2013, he claimed that the first-stage Falcon 9 booster accounted for three-quarters of the total launch cost.

The firm has made great strides over the years to improve its technology. SpaceX first attempted to save a Falcon 9 booster in 2013, but failed. In 2020, it attempted to save 25 boosters and successfully saved 23. The majority of these boosters landed on autonomous drone ships in the ocean, relighting the engine to come in for a softer landing.

Palmer says he thinks “SpaceX has demonstrably proven that reusable launch vehicles are viable and competitive in the launch market.”

Rocket Lab, a small satellite launcher firm, has also been perfecting its rocket reuse technology. Its technique, better suited to its smaller rockets, involves using a helicopter to recover the booster. CEO Peter Beck told Inverse in December 2020 that the technology can help boost its rocket production rate.

“Rocket Lab is also pursuing reusability with their Electron although they are using different methods than SpaceX,” Palmer says, adding that the ESA “is being forward-looking in their development of reusability in the likely hopes of staying competitive within the launch market.”

Where will the race go from here? — The ESA is aiming to develop a reusable first stage, but SpaceX and Rocket Lab are already looking further ahead.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is only partially reusable, as the upper stage is expendable. The firm is currently developing the Starship, designed as a fully reusable ship capable of sending humans to Mars.

Rocket Lab is also developing the larger Neutron rocket, a reusable rocket capable of supporting goals like sending a probe to Venus to support research.

Virgin Galactic is also developing its reusable ship for suborbital space tourism flights, while Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard rocket is expected to send private citizens into space.

Reusing the rocket is a start, but what it enables could end up something spectacular.

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