Successful P120C test another milestone towards Arianespace’s new rockets

by Justin Davenport

ArianeGroup has successfully test-fired its second P120C solid rocket motor, a step forward toward initial launches of the Vega-C light satellite launcher late this year and the Ariane 6 heavy satellite launcher in 2020, the launcher that will ultimately replace the long-serving and successful Ariane 5 launch vehicle.

The P120C, equipped to gather data on over 600 parameters and mounted vertically on a CNES (French space agency) test stand known as BEAP at the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, fired for 135 seconds in a successful test that moves the program forward toward its third and last test later this year and the first launch campaign for the Vega-C at the end of 2019.

In July 2020, the ArianeGroup’s new flagship launch vehicle, the Ariane 6, also including the P120C in its configuration, is scheduled to follow with its first test launch.

The test of qualification motor 1 (QM-1) came six months after the all-new P120C’s first test, the firing of the development motor (DM) on July 16, 2018 and over four years after the program was initially approved as a common motor to power two different launch vehicle families, the Vega-C (common booster) follow-on to the Vega launcher and the Ariane 6.

Ariane 6 and Vega C – via ESA

Later this year the second qualification motor (QM-2) will be tested, and if all goes well, the P120C will be approved for flight.

The P120C, which will be the first stage of the Vega-C launcher, as well as the strap-on booster for the Ariane 6 series, has the world’s largest monolithic carbon-fiber composite solid rocket booster casing and is 44 feet (13.5 meters) long, 11 feet (3.4 meters) wide.

The booster has a thrust of approximately 1 million pounds, which would place it well above the GEM-63 tested last September in Utah at 373,000 lbs, but well below the Space Shuttle 4 segment booster capable of 2.8 million lbs of thrust each.

The P120C is designed and built by a European consortium involving a joint venture known as Europropulsion, a venture between ArianeGroup and Avio, as well as CNES, the Italian ASI space agency, and Airbus Safran.

This multinational venture uses the Avio facilities in Colleferro, Italy to manufacture the carbon fiber composite casing, a facility in France to build the ArianeGroup composite steerable nozzle, and the propellant casting and integration facilities in French Guiana to build up and prepare these boosters for flight.

The P120C, through its common use across launch vehicle lines and use of existing facilities, is designed to reduce costs as a competitive response to newer companies like SpaceX that have dramatically lowered launch costs and captured an increasing share of the worldwide launch market, dethroning the ArianeGroup from the dominating position it had held until very recently.

As an example of the P120C’s promised capability, the Vega-C is designed to lift up to 1500 more pounds (700 kg) to a sun-synchronous polar orbit than the original Vega with the P80 motor without increasing launch costs, offering more value for the money.

P120C motor – via Arianespace

In addition, the Ariane 6 is designed to use two or four P120C’s as strap-on boosters to offer a flexible configuration choice while offering similar capability to the Ariane 5 family at a much-reduced cost.

The European space sector, like other space industry actors, has had to streamline its operations and reduce costs due to the new competitive environment, and ArianeGroup wants to continue competing for commercial launches while still offering Europe its own independent launch capability.

The new launch pad for the upgraded Ariane 6 is already deep into its construction phase at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana.

ELA-4 under construction – via CNES

The first launch is currently expected sometime in 2020, although a firm launch date is yet to be announced.

Arianespace is still continuing to launch missions with its Ariane 5 workhorse, with the next launch set to take place next week with the dual payload mission involving Hellas-Sat-4/SaudiGeoSat-1 and GSAT 31 on February 5.

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