The first launch of Ariane 6 is now within reach. The decision to build this new European launcher was taken six years ago. It will be launched in two versions and will be more flexible and cost-effective than its predecessor, Ariane 5. But is that enough? Dynamic markets, changing conditions and technological leaps have marked the beginning of a major turning point in global launcher development – with serious consequences for the commercial launcher market. If Europe wants to secure independent and affordable access to space, new technologies must be developed and tested. Technologies such as reusable carrier systems or new propulsion systems using liquid oxygen and liquid methane offer great opportunities for this. In order to seize these opportunities, test and launch facilities must also be equipped for the future. They are an integral part of a sustainable and economic European launch strategy. This was the central theme of the eighth set of Industrial Days, which brought together leading decision-makers from space agencies, the space industry and research at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) in Lampoldshausen on 2 and 3 March 2020.
Test facilities through the ages
In order to be able to compete globally among space-faring nations, Europe needs the best conditions for the development of forward-looking and cost-saving technologies, improved networking and collaboration between space companies, start-ups and research, and strengthened test and launch infrastructures. "Increasingly demanding test scenarios require facilities that are more flexible and capable of acquiring the data obtained from propulsion systems more quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively," says Pascale Ehrenfreund, Chair of the DLR Executive Board, explaining the challenges involved in developing competitive launcher systems. "DLR's Lampoldshausen site combines large-scale test facilities with basic and application-oriented research in the field of space propulsion systems in a way that is unique in Europe."
Reorganising Europe's space flight systems
The global space market has become more dynamic and diverse than ever. Micro launchers – small launchers for payloads of up to one tonne for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – are increasingly complementing the European Ariane family of launchers and becoming a major focus. Increasing variety and a significantly shortened development time define the current European launch strategy. DLR has already responded to this development to a large extent with the Institute of Space Propulsion in Lampoldshausen. As a European research and test centre for liquid propulsion systems, it has the ideal conditions and high-quality facilities that meet the industrial standards of European space companies. "The Lampoldshausen test centre has for many decades been part of Europe's strategic infrastructure and a fundamental cornerstone for our access to space. With the decisions taken at the ESA Council at Ministerial Level in Seville at the end of 2019, we are in an excellent position to establish Lampoldshausen as the leading centre in Europe for testing engines of all types and sizes," explains Walther Pelzer, Member of the DLR Executive Board and Head of the DLR Space Administration, the institution responsible for administrating Germany's contributions to ESA.
Promoting innovation through partnership
The impetus for this change comes not only from new space markets but also from the development of disruptive technologies such as battery-driven pumps, new fibre-reinforced composites and engine components manufactured using additive layer manufacturing (ALM). It is therefore important for Europe to generate technological innovations that make space travel fit for future challenges in a rapidly changing environment. Partnerships play a major role in this. "We see research partnerships with universities as a strategically important area of activity that we will continue to expand upon," says Hansjörg Dittus, Member of DLR Executive Board for Space Research and Technology. “Through these collaborations, we are providing an important stimulus for driving the development of innovative technologies in space travel. We are also pursuing the implementation of the technological visions of the future of European space companies in the field of launchers, together with established small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), but also with start-ups."
Next-generation technology for more efficient test facilities
With the FLAME (Future Lampoldshausen Exploitation) project, DLR is developing the basis for the comprehensive modernisation and digitalisation of the engine test facilities as part of an ESA programme, which will further expand the strategic importance of DLR Lampoldshausen for European space transportation. Anja Frank, head of the test facilities at the Institute of Space Propulsion, has plans for the future optimisation of existing test facilities. Among other things, she is considering increased standardisation of interfaces, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) for test stand applications, and digitally optimised structures and processes. The DLR site in Lampoldshausen is uniquely equipped nationally, and to a certain extent, internationally, to conduct data-based procedures. "We have access to an extensive and high-quality database built over decades of test stand operation. This provides a unique basis for the use of data-based processes," says Frank, summarising the potential of DLR's infrastructure in Lampoldshausen.
Test stand reloaded – new technology inside a proven shell
The large-scale test facilities built between 1960 and 1990, and repeatedly refurbished since then, embody the future of DLR Lampoldshausen. A good example of this is the P5 test stand – with grey, aged concrete on the outside and state-of-the-art technology on the inside. It went into operation in 1990 for the development and qualification of the Vulcain main stage engine for Ariane 5. In order to prepare the P5 test stand for future developments in the field of liquid oxygen (LOX)/liquid methane (LCH4) technology, DLR is investing around 30 million euro in its Lampoldshausen site. With its research into methane as a fuel, DLR is contributing to current developments such as the European technology demonstrator 'Prometheus' – a high-thrust and reusable rocket engine to be powered by liquid oxygen and liquid methane.
Challenges in the 2020s
Innovative test facility technology and sustainable energy supply are top of the agenda for the strategic development of the site. With scientific expertise, a unique infrastructure and openness to the use of new technologies in digitalisation and AI, Lampoldshausen has developed into the European research and technology location for liquid-chemical space propulsion systems. "With the strategy known as 'Lampoldshausen 2030', we have a clear vision of the future. The fact that we can build on a stable foundation – both technologically and in terms of strategic partnerships – is a huge help," says Stefan Schlechtriem, Director of the DLR Institute of Space Propulsion, describing the current plans for site development. "But we cannot rest on our laurels. We must adapt our processes to future requirements. The environment in which we operate will remain extremely agile. The goal is to create competitive test rigs in Lampoldshausen that will provide enormous advantages in terms of flexibility, time and cost."