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ESA moves forward with Prometheus, an ultra-low-cost reusable rocket engine

European Space Agency (ESA) plans to encourage the Prometheus rocket design so that it can be produced on an industrial scale. Prometheus is the precursor of ultra-low-cost rocket propulsion that is flexible enough to fit a fleet of a wide variety of launch vehicles for any mission and will be potentially reusable.

Developed by ArianeGroup – under ESA’s Expander-Cycle Technology Integrated Demonstrator (ETID) project, part of ESA’s Future Launchers Preparatory Programme – Prometheus seems to be the key to competitive Europe in access to space. Many details for this reusable system are supposed to be printed on 3D printers.

ESA aims at the economic design of Prometheus to reduce the cost of the Ariane 5 Vulcain 2 disposable launch system by up to 10 times. According to ESA, Prometheus operates using liquid oxygen-methane, which provides a high level of efficiency. This enables standardization and operational simplicity.

Prometheus, a liquid-fueled rocket engine.
Prometheus, a liquid-fueled rocket engine.
Credits: ESA

The choice of methane as propellant is instead due to a series of factors, such as the widespread presence on Earth, easy to handle, and conservation, which make it ideal for the demonstrator of a reusable launcher.

According to the space agency, Prometheus can be used for both the main and upper stages of launch vehicles. It has a variable thrust, can perform multiple ignitions, and requires only minimal ground operations before and after the flight. In addition, Prometheus will be equipped with an internal computer that monitors and corrects the engine in real-time throughout the mission profile.

Components manufactured and ready for testing include turbopump turbines, pump inlets, and gas generator valves. Currently, the developer is conducting fire tests of the Prometheus prototype gas generator unit at the DLR German Aerospace Center’s Lampoldshausen testing facility in Germany. By December of this year, the Prometheus M1 prototype will receive a combustion chamber for further testing.

Prometheus represents a breakthrough in terms of cost and manufacturing, and its robust design is the baseline for future evolutions of Ariane to 2030.

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