Maia, the project that marks the future of Space for Europe

Maia, the project that marks the future of Space for Europe


Although the enthusiasm today seems like a feeling from another era - or from another world -, when at the end of January ArianeGroup announced the "Maia" project, intended for the creation of a mini-launcher that promises to renew access. European to space, it was even Elon Musk who was the first to congratulate: "A step in the right direction", he tweeted.

Not that his approval was needed, to know that he had taken us, Morena Bernardini, Vice President of Strategy and innovation by ArianeGroup (a joint venture of Airbus and the French Safran group), the largest continental producer of launchers. Certainly, however, the emphasis from the owner of SpaceX, which arrived a few minutes after the announcement, had reaffirmed the strategic centrality of space. An importance already clear then, imagine today, when reflecting on the European autonomy of space launchers too could have become a necessity.

An Ariane 6 on the launch pad in Kourou (image, rendered, by Asi)

“Personally I am shocked by what is happening - reflects Bernardini -. It is now premature to comment on the impact that this situation will have at the company level. Our subsidiary, Arianespace, expressed itself on the subject, recalling Roscosmos’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the European spaceport of Kourou and to suspend all Sojuz launches from the European Space Center. Arianespace is in close contact with its customers and the French and European authorities to better assess all the consequences of this situation and develop alternative solutions ”.

Born in 1983, Roman origins, graduated from Sapienza in Aerospace Engineering with a specialization in Astronautical Engineering, master in Management of industrial alliances at the Insead Business School, Bernardini is one of the key figures in the European space industry. She, who in 2017 at Thales Alenia Space was head of the new business and responsible for the design of satellite constellations in the field of internet of things, is responsible for a substantial contribution to the creation of the new European governance of launchers and to the definition of synergies between Ariane 6 and Vega C, the next generation of continental launchers. An area, that of space carriers, not surprisingly considered strategic even well before the disaster in Ukraine.

A change of course At the beginning of February, during the European space conference in Brussels, Thierry Breton, commissioner of the 'European Union in the internal market, defense, industry and space, to sound the alarm: “Europe is in full expansion, with new private operators who are changing the business model, integrating large industries, SMEs and digital ecosystems. This potential must be released and 2022 will be the turning point ". It is difficult to believe that Breton, referring to the year of the turning point, was thinking of a conflict in the heart of the Old Continent, but the need for greater competitiveness for Europe and its strategic value had not been ignored. "Europe must defend its interests and must claim its freedom to operate [militarily, ed] in space", added the commissioner. Prophetic words in the light of what happened later, but whose importance should be evaluated regardless of the news of our days.

Bernardini is clear on this point: “Even in these weeks, the preparation of the next Ariane 5 campaigns of 2022 are proceeding according to plans and programs. Taking the place of Ariane 5 and Vega, Ariane 6 and Vega C will provide Europe with sustainable and autonomous access to space, the importance of which is now more relevant and essential ”.

Morena Bernardini, vice president of Strategy and innovation by ArianeGroup (photo: Claudia Bevilacqua)

We seem to hear Breton's words again, not surprisingly confirmed a few days later by the director general of the European Space Agency, Josef Aschbacher, ready to reiterate the importance of a new centrality beyond the atmosphere.

“It is a question of freedom - comments Bernardini -. It is essential for Europe to maintain leadership in autonomous access to space. This will be possible if the industry pushes in the same direction - the expression European Launcher Alliance says it all in three words - and ArianeGroup's strategy goes precisely in this direction. In our opinion, Europe will be able to respond to the growing and diversified demand of the space market by equipping itself with a family of launchers, which is built on common technological blocks, so as to maximize industrial, reusable, eco-sustainable economies. Another indispensable factor is an ambitious European policy for the space sector and with a coherent budget. I remember that today the average expenditure of a European for space is about 10 euros per year, that of an American for NASA is 70 dollars, seven times that ".

It is no coincidence Bernardini answers avoiding to evoke the upheavals that the conflict in Ukraine could generate in the long term also on collaborations and extra-atmospheric programs. Understandable corporate prudence, on the one hand, but also assessments consistent with intentions declared well before the conflict. For this, leaving the news in the background as much as possible, an evaluation of the state of the art in the field of launchers in Europe is appropriate. A context, it must be remembered, enabling, without which, that is, any asset or space program could not even be thought of.

An Ariane 6 in the "64" configuration, with four boosters (rendered image by Esa )

ESA-David Ducros The community landscape “The situation of European launchers is effervescent - he comments -. As far as we are concerned, I remember that Ariane closed 2021 with three historical events: the launch of the James Webb telescope, for which it is expected to last twice as long thanks to the precision with which we have placed it in its operational orbit, the world record of load in geostationary orbit, established by Ariane 5 in October (10,264 kilograms), and the departure of the Ariane 6 stages from Les Mureaux and Bremen for the combined tests on the launch pad in Kourou ".

It is not everything adds: “2022 will be the debut year of Ariane 6 and Vega C [the latter built in the Colleferro factories by Avio, ed], the new generations of the two families of European launchers. Furthermore, several startups have been working on micro-launchers for some time: with the same logic, ArianeGroup launches the Maia project, a mini-launcher that will be able to benefit, unique in Europe, from a startup entrepreneurial logic combined with the ten-year experience of successful launchers to conceive and create the first reusable launcher in Europe ".

The Maia project About Maia: it seems the answer to those who, in their approach to the sector, have always recognized if not a clear delay in Europe, at least ambitions reduced compared to the revolution in technologies and means developed by private individuals overseas, Musk in primis. “Maia is a mini-thrower, not a micro-thrower - replies the ArianeGroup strategist -. It sounds like a pun, but it's not, because launchers rank according to the payload they carry, regardless of their size. Maia will be the first reusable and eco-responsible launcher in Europe, an acceleration vehicle for us and for the entire continent, capable of developing innovative technologies with agile methods and without subjecting to geopolitical logic. It will be able to respond to a growing and dynamic market, that of small satellites, but it also has a strategic objective: to prepare the next generations of European space carriers. On the one hand, it is an accelerator for the development of reuse technologies already started with Prometheus and Themis, which are European programs; on the other hand, to prefigure and speed up the development of the future family of space carriers, as I have already said based on common technological blocks ".

Born to fly in 2026, in its reusable version Maia will be able to carry 500 kilograms in sun-synchronous orbit and 1500 in the "disposable" version, that is the one that does not contemplate the recovery of the first stage. At the same orbits, Ariane 6 will be able to deliver 15 tons and Vega E three: it is the sign of the complementarity of the carriers, the European response to the new commercial needs of space and to new competitors. It is interesting to understand, from this point of view, if Musk or Jeff Bezos are perceived as challengers or potential partners.

“Both things - says Bernardini -. They are competitors and at the same time bearers of new business opportunities and that is what fascinates me most about my work: the launcher market sees the uneven coexistence of public and private actors and customers, free market and captive market. Each actor operates in this context by making the most of the opportunities that arise. Each one adapts its business model: if in Europe we had a government client with cadences and volumes equal to that of the United States, it would also make sense for us to have a reusable launcher today. I believe that the lash of US entrepreneurs has been healthy for Europe, or at least for some players, and you have shown that a different way of doing business in space is possible. Maia is our answer to ”.

Samantha Cristoforetti, who will be back on the ISS next April. On board a SpaceX Crew Dragon (photo: Esa)

And what responds to those who, like Breton and Aschbacher, make no secret of aiming for launch autonomy extended to European human crews as well? “I would like that, between now and 2030, European astronauts could fly aboard European launchers that will take off from European soil, instead of buying passes from third parties - says the manager -. This conviction was also expressed by ESA and presupposes a common political will of all European states to no longer depend on others, to send our astronauts into the cosmos, but also and above all because sending the man of space means knowing how to develop technologies. very sophisticated. Europe has a qualified aerospace industry with all the capabilities to do so and, in particular, human flight would be a further stimulus to the development of reusable launchers. I can't help but believe it ”. Especially now. Especially when enthusiasm and hope are rare and therefore even more precious.

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