ArianeGroup unveils concept for a reusable spacecraft in the upper case

Artist depiction of SUSIE performing a vertical landing (video speed 2.5 times).
GIF: ArianeGroup / Gizmodo

French aerospace company ArianeGroup has unveiled a concept for a reusable upper stage spacecraft capable of delivering heavy payloads into space and carrying out manned missions before landing vertically on Earth.

It was SUSIE, short for Smart Upper Stage for Innovative Exploration inserted To the world at the International Astronautical Congress held in Paris from 18 to 22 September. The fully reusable upper stage could eventually serve as a robotic cargo ship and payload carrier, as well as a spacecraft for manned missions carrying a crew of up to five astronauts. SUSIE is still a concept for now, but if achieved, the spacecraft will support many European space endeavors for years to come.

Reusability has become a necessity in modern spaceflight, as launch service providers work to cut costs. “It is our industrial duty to contribute to this ambition and to provide smart and ambitious technological solutions to European decision-makers capable of contributing to independent access to space, as well as to opening the door to European space exploration and addressing the commercial and institutional needs of services in Europe,” said Morena Bernardini, Head of Strategy and Innovation at ArianeGroup, at a statement.

Europe’s private space industry has fallen a bit behind its American counterparts in terms of developing reusable vehicles. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is a reusable two-stage rocket into space nearly 200 times, while the company’s reusable Dragon capsules, both for shipping and crews, are now steadily in circulation. Boeing’s Starliner, a reusable crew capsule, recently completed The first end-to-end unmanned test flight (Although it was a less than perfect task). Launchers and reusable vehicles are not so much the future as they are the present.

Artist’s conception of SUSIE shortly after detaching from the second stage.

Artist’s conception of SUSIE shortly after detaching from the second stage.
Screenshot: Ariane Group

SUSIE will initially launch onboard the company’s heavy-lift Ariane 6 vehicle, which is scheduled for its inaugural flight in 2023. The large upper stage could be used to transport all sorts of payloads to orbit and even assist in the orbital construction of large infrastructure, such as space stations. For its return trip home, the spacecraft could be packed with upwards of 14,000 pounds (7 tons) of cargo and supplies.

“Missions made possible by SUSIE include towing, inspecting and upgrading satellites and other payloads, and supplying fuel, food, and equipment to space stations. It will also be able to carry out crew changeovers and facilitate human in-orbit activities,” ArianeGroup claimed in its statement. “It will also help reduce orbital debris and assist with removing or deorbiting end-of-life satellites.” SUSIE is meant to be entirely reusable and is designed to make a soft, vertical landing back on Earth. The upper stage would also be equipped with an abort safety system that covers the entire mission from liftoff to landing.

Aside from SUSIE, ArianeGroup is designing new heavy-lift reusable launchers as part of a proposal for the European Space Agency (ESA) for its NESTS (New European Space Transportation Solutions) initiative. The heavy-lift launchers could later be used to carry SUSIE to orbit. Europe may be late to the game, but it’s planning a solid entry into the business of reusable space vehicles.

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