Roscosmos, ESA Discuss Ganymede Mission, Joint Rocket Development

Roscosmos and ESA have agreed to pursue missions aimed at returning soil samples from the south pole of the moon and landing a spacecraft on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, according to a Roscosmos press statement.

The decision was made during a Dec. 19 meeting between Roscosmos Head Vladimir Popovkin and ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain.  The space agency chiefs also discussed the potential involvement of Russia in the U.S.-European ExoMars program and collaboration in developing new launch vehicles.

Earlier this year, the two space agencies established a working group to study cooperative space science activities. The working group said the two most promising projects were the lunar mission, which is set for the 2016-2020 time frame, and the Ganymede flight, which would be launched after 2020.

Other missions the group considered included: sending spacecraft to study Venus’ atmosphere and to land on the planet;  launching sample return flights to near-Earth asteroids; and the developing of a new astronomical observatory. These missions will be held for possible later collaboration.

The press release provides no details on the discussion concerning Russian participation in ExoMars, which is being sought due to funding shortfalls in the United States and Europe. Discussions have focused on Russia providing a launcher and a suite of instruments for inclusion on the Mars-bound spacecraft.

The space agencies also discussed collaboration on rockets:

“The General Director of Khrunichev, Vladimir Nesterov, who co-chairs the working group on launch vehicles, outlined the main general objectives and possible areas of cooperation in the field of launch vehicle. They were cut launch costs, the use of environmentally friendly fuels, especially in the fall of spent stages (for Russia – the use of areas falling outside the continental territory), the establishment of a new manned vehicle lifting capacity of 20-25 tons, and the creation of heavy-duty vehicle (carrying capacity of more than 50 tons with an opportunity to improve in the future) to serve the manned missions of space exploration.

“According to the head of Russian Federal Space Agency, the possibility of technical realization of these projects, no doubt, but to transform them into life from an organizational point of view should be closer cooperation between enterprises of Russia and Europe. ‘The next step is to connect businesses in Europe to assess the feasibility of these projects. Boosters must meet the missions that we pledge, and do not develop by itself,’ he said.

“The meeting participants agreed with the conclusions of the working group on launch vehicles and supported the proposal to proceed with the draft with the condition to attract companies and space agencies of Europe, especially France and Germany.”

It’s not clear precisely how these discussions might impact existing plans. Khrunichev is currently developing the much-delayed Angara booster, which is now set to make its maiden flight during the second half of 2013. (The project has been delayed so often that schedules are always a bit suspect.) Angara is a modular family of boosters designed to launch everything from small to heavy payloads.

The other major effort is the upgrade of the venerable Soyuz launcher to carry much heavier loads. That program involves replacing the existing engines on the first stage and developing larger strap-on boosters so the rocket can carry larger payloads, including a new human spaceflight vehicle.

Cooperation with ESA on mutually beneficial projects could help Russia solve its biggest problem with rocket development: a lack of funding.  Angara has been financed in large part by: South Korea, whose KSLV-1 rocket uses an Angara-derived first stage; and France, which funded a new upper stage as part of the effort to bring the Soyuz launcher to Kourou. The upper stage will be used on both Soyuz and Angara.

Meanwhile, ESA is pursuing several launch vehicle initiatives. The Ariane 5 Midlife Extension is designed to make the current launcher 20 percent more powerful and 20 percent less expensive per kilogram of payload launched. The French government is also strongly backing the development of Ariane 6, a replacement booster designed to enter service around 2025.

Whether ESA can fund both projects simultaneously remains to be seen. And what assistance the Russians might provide, if any, on the European launcher projects is uncertain.

Russian Soyuz rockets began flying from Kourou earlier this year, giving the spaceport the capability to launch single, medium-sized satellites. (Ariane 5 launches large communications satellites two at a time.) The European Vega rocket, which will lift small payloads, will make its debut early next year, giving the spaceport a full range of launch capabilities for the first time.

An interesting  development to note is that ESA is moving toward mastering re-entry technology with the planned 2014 launch of an experimental vehicle. This is the first step toward human spaceflight, an area in which the Russians are expert. So, collaboration on human-rated launchers might be in both nation’s interests, especially with the common desire to explore beyond Earth orbit and a Soyuz launch pad now in Kourou.