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French Space Agency Unveils Reusable Rocket Modeled After Falcon 9

A still from the video released by Ariane Group visualizing a future launch vehicle. Ariane Group

The French space agency CNES, working with European aerospace company Ariane Group, has unveiled a plan to create an “acceleration platform” called ArianeWords, which will begin with a first stage rocket that is reusable for multiple launches. The first stage rocket, called Themis, will launch vertically and land nearby the launch site, allowing the reuse of the engine, which should make launches considerably cheaper to implement.

The Ariane Group released a video showing a visualization of the Themis and Callisto systems in action, claiming that their Prometheus oxygen and methane engine will deliver 100 tons of thrust for 10 times cheaper than alternatives. They showed off features like digital controls, embedded intelligence, and the ability to adapt the system to any launcher. Of note is the landing shown in the video, in which one rocket launches as another one lands — the idea being that having the launches from one location will cut down on costs, as proposed in other reusable rocket concepts.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s an awful lot like SpaceX’s two-stage and partly reusable Falcon 9 rocket, which has been used in launches since 2010. To be fair, CNES have copped to drawing their inspiration from other space projects. The Launch Vehicles Directorate at CNES, Jean-Marc Astorg, admitted the similarities of their Callisto first stage to the Falcon 9’s first-stage reuse prototype Grasshopper in an interview last year: “Callisto is Grasshopper. The Chinese are also building a similar prototype, I have no problem saying we didn’t invent anything.”

CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall acknowledged the tough international competition for commercial space launches and even acknowledged the elephant in the room of Elon Musk’s hugely visible and ambitious SpaceX program. “Ariane is one of Europe’s greatest technological, industrial and commercial success stories, and we must pursue that success in the face of strong international competition,” Le Gall said in a statement. “The role of ArianeWorks is to prepare, at French level, the proposals for future launchers to be presented at Europe’s next Ministerial Conference. These include, in particular, the roadmap for Ariane Next and for its first phase, the Themis demonstrator.”

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