Ariane 6: Researchers at ISAE-SUPAERO Working On the Future

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- The European launcher Ariane 6 incorporates major technological innovations such as the Vinci engine, capable of reigniting in space.

- At ISAE-SUPAERO, researchers are tackling the challenges of tomorrow’s rocket engines.

- Annafederica Urbano, a professor specialising in space propulsion and space transport systems, explains in more detail.

On Tuesday, July 9, the maiden flight of Ariane 6 marked a major new stage in Europe’s space odyssey, and a strategic turning point for the independence of Europe and France in terms of access to space.

It is a jewel of technology that has risen into the sky above the Guiana Space Centre.

Ariane 6 first take off
Credits: ESA - M. Pédoussaut

‘Although architecturally similar to Ariane 5, Ariane 6 represents a significant step forward, halving costs and incorporating major technological innovations,’ says Annafederica Urbano, a professor specialising in space propulsion and space transportation systems at ISAE-SUPAERO.

Meeting the Demands of NewSpace

Among these technologies, the Vinci assembler ‘is capable of relighting in space, making it possible to place several satellites in orbit during a single mission and offering unprecedented flexibility.’ Another advantage of Ariane 6 over its predecessor is ‘its modularity and versatility. It is a rocket designed to be able to handle very different missions, and thus meet the requirements of the NewSpace market.’

While this maiden flight represents major technological advances, researchers at ISAE-SUPAERO are also working on the engines of the future, at a time when competition from the United States and China is pushing Europe’s space industry to speed up its development.

Researchers in the Space Systems Design laboratory are working on future generations of launchers, in particular reusable engines, and on the behaviour of fluids in rocket engines.

Methane and Its Complexity

Annafederica Urbano is especially interested in liquid propulsion, in particular methane, considered to be the fuel of the future. Methane ‘is less expensive than hydrogen, while maintaining satisfactory performance,’ she explains. Although not used in the Ariane 6 engines, it will be used in the Raptor engines on Starship which is produced by the American SpaceX. The problem: ‘its use gives rise to complex phenomena that are still poorly understood.’

Another challenge facing the researcher and her team is that of reusable engines and ‘the way in which fluids behave during landing compared to other phases of flight.’ ‘By reducing the thrust of the engine to land, the oxygen injected into the engine becomes liquid,’ explains Annafederica Urbano. This has an impact on combustion and can cause major problems. The researcher has just obtained funding from the French National Research Agency (ANR) via a ‘young researcher’ grant to gain a better understanding of this phenomenon, ‘the fundamental principles of which are poorly understood.’

Digital Simulations

In order to explore and better understand these phenomena, Annafederica Urbano’s team is working to establish numerical models of fluids and latest-generation rocket engines. It also relies on artificial intelligence algorithms to extract models based on calculations and thus create representative simulations, reducing the number of costly tests.

‘In a decade’s time, we will be able to design rocket engines using digital modelling, supported by practical experiments,’ predicts the researcher, potentially including those of the next Ariane.

Annafederica Urbano, enseignante-chercheuse spécialisée en propulsion spatiale et systèmes de transport spatial à l'ISAE-SUPAERO
Specialising in space propulsion and space transportation systems, I obtained my PhD in 2012 from La Sapienza University in Rome after a thesis on the regenerative cooling system for liquid methane rocket engines. I continued my research in the fields of combustion and the study of two-phase flows. I joined ISAE-SUPAERO in 2019 as a professor in space systems and launchers in the Department of Aerospace Vehicles Design and Control (DCAS). I am responsible for the Chair in advanced space concepts (SaCLaB2), developed in partnership with Airbus Defense and Space and ArianeGroup. With regards to education, I teach courses on launch systems and rocket propulsion to students in the Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering and the ISAE-SUPAERO Ingénieur programme.

Annafederica Urbano - Full Professor of Space Systems and Launchers at ISAE-SUPAERO

Space Courses at ISAE-SUPAERO

Education in space engineering is an important part of the Ingénieur and Master’s programmes. The Space Systems Design laboratory regularly welcomes students from these programmes for research projects or internships. ISAE-SUPAERO also offers two Advanced Masters programmes - a year of post-Master’s specialisation - entirely devoted to space studies: the MS Space Applications & Services (SPAPS), in partnership with Airbus Defense and Space which trains students in space telecommunications and Earth observation applications, and the MS Space Systems Engineering (TAS ASTRO), which trains students in space systems engineering.

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