Airbus Defence and Space has unveiled its concept for a reusable first stage launch vehicle to compete with SpaceX's reusable space launch system. The ADvanced Expendable Launcher with INnovative engine Economy (Adeline) would preserve the main engines and avionics of the company's next generation Ariane 6 and other launch vehicles, for use in later missions.

According to Airbus, the components contained in the Adeline re-entry module would account for around 70 to 80 percent of the total value of the launch vehicle. Therefore, if the ambitious concept were to become reality, it would represent a significant step towards creating a highly affordable and versatile launch solution. But more importantly, Adeline would help to solidify the company's position in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

The system, located at the base of a launch vehicle, is essentially a detachable, protective module, designed to act as the thrusters and guidance system for the main stage of an Airbus rocket. Having fulfilled its primary objective of liberating the upper stage of an Ariane launch vehicle from Earth's atmosphere, Adeline would return to Earth and readied to do it all again.

Here's how a perfect execution of the Adeline system would work in practice. Once the first stage of the launch vehicle reaches the end of its usefulness, it separates from the rocket's second stage. During this process, the heat-shielded Adeline detaches itself from the fuel tank that makes up the bulk of the first stage, and undertakes a ballistic flight back through Earth's atmosphere.

Artist's impression of Adeline separating from the fuel tank, ready to re-enter Earth's atmosphere(Credit: Airbus Defence and Space)

Once atmospheric re-entry is complete, Adeline behaves much like a conventional UAV, flying on winglets, and propelled by twin propellers that deploy at the rear of the module. If all goes to plan, Adeline would descend to its designated landing strip and safely touch down, after which it would be refurbished, and readied to serve as the main stage of another Ariane rocket. Airbus has stated that the system could cut launch vehicle costs by up to 30 percent.

The approach is a marked contrast to the competing SpaceX system, which attempts to salvage the entire first stage of a Falcon 9 launch vehicle by utilizing its main engine and soft-landing struts to execute a powered vertical landing. To date, testing of the SpaceX system has been met with mixed results.

Artist's impression of the Adeline module coming in for a horizontal landing(Credit: Airbus Defence and Space)

The Adeline system has been in development since 2010. To date, Airbus has carried out simulator testing, and has even flight tested a number of demonstrator models designed to develop key technologies. The company is aiming to be ready for the maiden launch of the Adeline system some time in the year 2025.

Beyond Adeline, Airbus is attempting to make the Ariane 6 launch vehicle as economically viable as possible with the use of upper stage tugs. The company believes that the upper stage of its next generation launch system could be used to drag satellites into a transfer orbit, or possibly even into their operational orbit. In such a scenario, the tugs would be designed to be reusable, with Airbus considering utilizing the probes to service and refuel existing satellites.

A computer animation of the concept can be viewed below.

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