This reusable space cargo ship would "open the door" to European space exploration

This reusable space cargo ship would “open the door” to European space exploration

Artist’s impression of SUSIE performing a vertical landing (video accelerated 2.5 times).
GIF: Ariane/Gizmodo Group

French aerospace company ArianeGroup has unveiled a concept reusable upper-stage spacecraft that would be capable of delivering heavy payloads into space and performing crewed missions before landing vertically on Earth.

SUSIE, short for Smart Upper Stage for Innovative Exploration, was introduced in the world at the International Astronautical Congress held in Paris from September 18 to 22. The fully reusable upper stage could eventually serve as an automated freighter and payload carrier, as well as a spacecraft for crewed missions carrying up to five astronauts. SUSIE remains a concept at this time, but if realized, the spacecraft would support various European space initiatives for years to come.

Reusability is quickly becoming a necessity in modern spaceflight as launch vendors strive to reduce costs. “It is our industrial duty to contribute to this ambition and to offer European decision-makers intelligent and ambitious technological solutions capable of contributing to independent access to space, but also of opening the door to European space exploration. and to meet the commercial and institutional needs for services in space over the coming decades,” said Morena Bernardini, head of strategy and innovation at ArianeGroup, in a statement.

The European private space industry has lagged behind its American counterparts in terms of the development of reusable vehicles. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is a two-stage reusable rocket that has flown in space nearly 200 times, while the company’s reusable Dragon capsules, whether for cargo or crews, are now in regular circulation. Boeing’s Starliner, a reusable crew capsule, recently completed its first unmanned end-to-end test flight (even if it was a less than perfect mission). Reusable launchers and vehicles are not so much the future as the present.

Artist's impression of SUSIE shortly after breaking away from the second floor.

Artist’s impression of SUSIE shortly after breaking away from the second floor.
Screenshot: Ariane Group

SUSIE will initially launch aboard the company’s Ariane 6 heavy vehicle, whose maiden flight is scheduled for 2023. The large upper stage could be used to transport all kinds of payloads into orbit and even help with the orbital construction of large infrastructure, like space stations. For its journey home, the spacecraft could be packed with more than 14,000 pounds (7 tons) of cargo and supplies.

“Missions made possible by SUSIE include towing, inspecting and upgrading satellites and other payloads, as well as providing fuel, food and equipment to space stations. It will also be able to perform crew changes and facilitate human activities in orbit,” ArianeGroup said in its press release. “It will also help reduce orbital debris and remove or de-orbit end-of-life satellites.” SUSIE is meant to be fully reusable and is designed to perform a soft, vertical landing on Earth. The upper stage would also be equipped with an abort safety system that would cover the entire mission, from takeoff to landing.

In addition to SUSIE, ArianeGroup is designing new reusable heavy launchers as part of a proposal to the European Space Agency (ESA) for its NESTS (New European Space Transportation Solutions) initiative. The heavy launchers could then be used to transport SUSIE into orbit. Europe may be late in the game, but it is planning a solid entry into the reusable space vehicle sector.

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