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Europe's ArianeWorks Aims for Reusable Rockets (with a Very SpaceX Look)

Europe's rocket-launching industry is gearing up to go reusable.

The European launch provider Arianespace — best known as the manufacturer of the heavy-lift Ariane 5 and the future Ariane 6 — has a plan to make its future rockets more competitive in a tight launch industry. As you might guess from looking at the U.S. company SpaceX's reusable Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, reusability is what Arianespace wants to do as well.

Back in February, ArianeGroup and CNES (the French space agency) signed a memorandum of understanding for a new "acceleration platform" that will work to develop new launchers, including reusable ones. The platform, called ArianeWorks, unites teams under one roof and provides all the ingredients possible for innovation: "a highly flexible environment, open to new players and internationally," according to a press release from the time.

Video: ArianeWorks' Reusable Rocket Plans Explained
Related: The Evolution of SpaceX's Reusable Rockets in Pictures

An ArianeWorks reusable Themis rocket prototype returns to Earth in a video animation of the group's new reusable rocket program. (Image credit: ArianeWorks)

The interim results are coming soon: two low-cost demonstrators that will examine how to recover the first stage of a rocket launching to space. An elementary experimental vehicle called Frog will test many of the technologies needed for this kind of work, including "landing algorithms, automated operations and the avionics architecture." These concepts will then be ported on to another, more robust demonstrator called Themis. 

In May, ArianeWorks announced that a Paris-based prototyping firm called MyCTO would build the first Themis prototype; the partners on Frog include Planète Sciences, Polyvionics and Cachan Technology Institute (Paris Saclay University).

ArianeWorks will use the small Frog reusable rocket  demonstrator to test technologies for larger reusable rockets.  (Image credit: ArianeWorks/MyCTO)

CNES and ArianeSpace are also working together to make an engine called Prometheus, which uses oxygen and methane as its propellant and can be adapted for multiple rocket platforms. Methane and oxygen produce products that are more environmentally friendly than many other rocket fuels. Themis will use the Prometheus engine for its landings, which means that the rocket demonstrator will not only be reusable, but also less harsh on the environment during launch and landing.

This isn't the first time that Arianespace has looked at reusable vehicles; a reusable sounding rocket called Callisto is also in the works. 

Callisto is meant to test how fuels perform in various engine designs. Some of the groundwork for Callisto will flow into the development for Themis, Arianespace said in a YouTube video released earlier this year. 

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time in aerospace sciences (University of North Dakota) after completing an M.Sc. (space studies) at the same institution. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @HowellSpace.