In a deal worth €75 million, ESA ArianeGroup signed a contract last week to develop a full-scale demonstrator of the new, ultra-low-cost, reusable rocket engine known as Prometheus. The engine is set to power Europe’s future launchers and makes intensive use of advanced manufacturing technologies, including 3D printing, to keep costs down and performances up.
Prometheus stands for Precursor Reusable Oxygen METHan cost Effective Engine (Prométhée in French), and the engine is a move away from the traditional Ariane propellant technology. Not only does the engine have the potential to be re-used up to at least five times, but the key propellant ingredient is no longer hydrogen, but methane.
For Europe, this is an innovative engine in many respects and represents a source of hope for reusable engines. The project was initiated in 2015 by CNES and Airbus Safran Launchers (now ArianeGroup) and received a serious boost at the conference of European space ministers in Lucerne, where it received an envelope of €82 m out of a total budget of more than €200 m.
“Prometheus will power Europe’s future launchers, forging a path of continuous improvement in competitiveness,” said Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA Director of Space Transportation, who signed the contract along with Alain Charmeau, CEO at ArianeGroup at ESA headquarters in Paris last week. “This contract paves the way for the future of Europe’s space transportation, and the development of European propulsion technology of tomorrow.”
Its aim is to lower the production price of the Vulcain engine by 90%, meaning that this future engine would cost only 1 million euros, against just over 10 million for the Vulcain 2 engine fitted to Ariane 5 – and above all, it could be reused at least five times. In order to achieve this Prometheus makes intensive use of 3D printing, predictive maintenance, digital control and a move away from the traditional Ariane propellant technology.
With the advantages offered by this engine, ArianeGroup will be able to take on new technical and economic challenges on the launchers market of tomorrow. ArianeGroup draws on its expertise in the field of LOX-methane propellants. Unlike current boosters which use a mixture of liquid hydrogen and oxygen, Prometheus/Prométhée will burn a mixture of liquid oxygen and methane, a radical move away from the propellants traditionally used by European launchers. The result is a simplified propulsion stage design and significant economic savings.
An oxygen/methane combustion chamber demonstrator named ROMEO was tested from December 2015 to the end of 2016. The ArianeGroup teams based in Ottobrunn and Lampoldshausen, as well as those of the DLR in Lampoldshausen, which operate the test bed, deployed all the necessary efforts to ensure that this test campaign was a success. Their commitment and their expertise did the rest: these tests are a true first in Europe.