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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Astrium Turns To Singapore For Spaceplane

Astrium will join with Singapore in building a suborbital demonstrator to underpin its fledgling spaceplane program, with a first flight expected perhaps as early as next year.
Singapore-based companies will be building a small-scale demonstrator of the spaceplane, and the first series of test flights will occur here, Astrium executives disclosed at the Global Space & Technology Convention in Singapore on Jan. 25-26.
These same companies may also be involved in developing parts for the commercial product. Astrium is hoping to ultimately have a fleet of commercial spaceplanes stationed at Singapore Changi International Airport.
Christophe Chavagnac, Astrium suborbital spaceplane chief engineer and program manager, says Singapore companies will be designing and building a small-scale demonstrator spaceplane to test aerodynamics and glide capability. This demonstrator will have no engines, whereas the real spaceplane will use turbofan engines along with a rocket powerplant.
The spaceplane’s two fuselage-mounted commercial turbofan engines will be needed for takeoff and initial ascent. Once the spaceplane reaches an altitude of 12 km (39,000 ft.), the rocket engine will take over. At this point, the spaceplane will ascend to a maximum altitude of 100 km before descending. There will be a period where the vehicle glides, before the turbofan engines are started and the craft makes its approach and lands.
The fact that the spaceplane will use conventional turbofan engines means it will be designed to take off and land from commercial airports. EADS Astrium also plans to apply for EASA certification.
Hughes Laporte-Weywada, Astrium’s senior vice president for international sales and marketing for Asia-Pacific, saysthe program has not been officially initiated because—like other commercial programs—launch customers must first be signed. Once the program is officially under way, it will take about seven years for the spacecraft to be certified, he predicts. Three must be built before the certification flight-test program can begin, he adds.
But even though the program has yet to be launched, the company is proceeding to construct the demonstrator, which will be 3-4 meters (10-13 ft.) long, with a comparable wingspan. Building and testing the demonstrator will take 18 months in itself, Laporte-Weywada says. The real spaceplane, meanwhile, will be much larger and have a maximum takeoff weight of about 20 tons, he adds.
Developing and building the demonstrator in Singapore means some of the demonstrator flights will occur here. For example, there will be one flight where a helicopter will lift the demonstrator about 3 km off the ground and then drop it to see how it glides.
Other demonstrator flights will involve a balloon dropping it from higher altitudes, but these tests are likely to be done elsewhere because of Singapore’s limited airspace. Astrium has the support of the country’s Economic Board, which has been considering development of a space port in the city-state.
Chavagnac says Astrium last year “did a study for operating a fleet of spaceplanes from Changi airport. There is a dynamic market in Southeast Asia and the spaceplane would have a valuable impact on Singapore’s tourism industry,” he says. If Singapore hosts a fleet of spaceplanes then it may also have a role in maintaining them, he adds.
The Astrium spaceplane will seat four passengers and one pilot for the 1-hr. flight up and back. Its rocket engine will be derived from Astrium’s Vulcain rocket engines used for satellite launchers. But those have 120-130 tons of thrust, whereas the spaceplane’s rocket engine will have 40 tons, say Astrium executives. The turbofan engines, to be used for takeoff and landing, will have about 10,000 lb. of thrust. The aircraft’s fuselage and wings, meanwhile, will use aluminum alloy. Chavagnac says metal was chosen for these sections—rather than composite materials—to make it easier for the spaceplane to receive EASA certification.
Astrium CEO Francois Auque told Aviation Week recently that the spaceplane also has potential for military use and small payload launches. The company has continued to maintain spending to refine the concept at a relatively high level—around €10 million ($13.6 million) a year—since the spaceplane was unveiled in 2007. It has agreed to pursue funding at the same level this year, he adds.
With Michael A. Taverna in Paris.

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