ArianeGroup Unveils Concept for Reusable Upper State Spacecraft


Artist’s conception of SUSIE performing a vertical landing (video sped 2.5 times).
Gif: ArianeGroup/Gizmodo

French aerospace company ArianeGroup has revealed a concept for a reusable upper stage spacecraft that would be capable of delivering heavy payloads to space and carry out crewed missions before landing vertically back on Earth.

SUSIE, short for Smart Upper Stage for Innovative Exploration, was introduced to the world at the International Astronautical Congress held in Paris from September 18 to 22. The fully reusable upper stage could eventually serve as an automated freighter and payload transporter, as well as a spacecraft for crewed missions carrying a crew of up to five astronauts. SUSIE remains a concept for now, but if realized, the spacecraft would support various European space endeavors for years to come.

Reusability is fast becoming a necessity in modern spaceflight, as launch providers work to keep costs down. “It is our industrial duty to contribute to this ambition and offer European decision-makers smart and ambitious technological solutions capable of contributing to independent access to space, and also to open the door to European space exploration and address commercial and institutional needs for services in space over the coming decades,” Morena Bernardini, head of strategy and innovation at ArianeGroup, said in 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 rocket is a reusable two-stage rocket that has flown to space nearly 200 times, while the company’s reusable Dragon capsules, whether for cargo or crews, are now in steady circulation. Boeing’s Starliner, a reusable crew capsule, recently completed its first uncrewed end-to-end test flight (although it was a less-than-perfect mission). Reusable launchers and vehicles aren’t 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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