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ESA plans demonstration of a reusable rocket stage

(15 December 2020 - ESA) ESA is taking the first steps towards the in-flight demonstration of a prototype reusable rocket first stage called Themis from 2023.

The Themis programme will provide valuable information on the economic value of reusability for Europe and prove technologies for potential use on future European launch vehicles.

Themis is founded on decisions taken at Space19+, European advances in technologies for reusability and a more agile and cost-driven approach to development.

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Themis (courtesy: ArianeGroup)

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Themis demonstrations (courtesy: ArianeGroup)

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Prometheus (courtesy: ArianeGroup)

On 15 December, ESA signed a contract worth €33 million with prime contractor ArianeGroup in France for the ‘Themis Initial Phase’. This first phase of the Themis involves preparation of the flight vehicle technologies, the test bench and static firing demonstrations at Vernon in France. It also includes the preparation of the ground segment at the Esrange Space Center in Kiruna, Sweden, for the first ‘hop’ tests and any associated flight vehicle modifications.

The aim with this programme is to complete tests early on in the development cycle. This will achieve technological milestones that will accelerate development and guide the final build.

ArianeGroup and its collaborators in Belgium, Switzerland, France and Sweden offer critical technical knowhow gained through the development of Europe’s next-generation engine – Prometheus – which will power Themis.

ESA’s Prometheus is a highly versatile engine capable of providing 1000 kN of variable thrust and is reignitable which makes it suitable for core, booster and upper stage application. An onboard computer handles engine management and monitoring in real time – a crucial feature for reusability.

Themis is 30 m high and 3.5 m in diameter. This single-stage vehicle demonstrator holds 130 tonnes of liquid oxygen/methane to fuel three aligned Prometheus engines.

Suborbital flight tests are scheduled as of 2023 at Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

Two landing sites are under consideration: the ‘Diamant zone’, used for experimental demonstrations, or the Ariane 5 launch complex, which will become available after the transition from the Ariane 5 to the next-generation Ariane 6.

“Themis will advance key technologies and demonstrate reusability capabilities in Europe. This will create additional options for lowering the cost of access to space and increase Europe’s flexibility to offer a variety of launch services,” commented Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA Director of Space Transportation.

“Powered by the Prometheus engine demonstrator, running on liquid oxygen/methane or oxygen/hydrogen combinations, Themis will lead to the proving and development of very low-cost launcher solutions, while contributing to energy transition to a more eco-responsible space launcher sector,” added André-Hubert Roussel, CEO at ArianeGroup.