Europe’s new reusable spacecraft is more like a ‘large Crew Dragon’ than Starship

SUSIE's vertical landing capabilities draw comparisons to SpaceX's Starship. Europe's not quite there yet, but it's a step in the right direction.
Chris Young
Illustrations of SUSIE in orbit (left) and landing (right).
Illustrations of SUSIE in orbit (left) and landing (right).

Source: ArianeGroup / YouTube 

French aerospace giant ArianeGroup revealed a new concept for a reusable upper-stage spacecraft called Smart Upper Stage for Innovative Exploration, or SUSIE.

The spacecraft will be able to carry heavy payloads as well as crewed missions to orbit before coming down to Earth for a vertical landing, a press statement reveals.

The new spacecraft is drawing comparisons to SpaceX's fully reusable Starship vehicle. While SUSIE isn't quite as impressive, it is a strong indicator of Europe's shift towards reusable rocket technologies.

Introducing the reusable SUSIE spacecraft

ArianeGroup unveiled its SUSIE concept at the International Astronautical Congress held in Paris from September 18 to 22. In its press release, ArianeGroup announces that SUSIE will be able to fly atop an Ariane 64 rocket as well as on future generation rockets — such as the Ariane 6, which is scheduled for launch in 2023. This, the company says, paves "the way for fully reusable launchers of the future."

The fully reusable upper stage will be able to function as an automated cargo transporter, and it will also be able to carry up to five astronauts on crewed missions. It is still in the concept phase, but its unveiling comes only a short time after European officials admitted they made a poor choice not to opt for reusable rocket technology roughly a decade ago. Talking about a different reusable project last year, called the Maïa project, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said, the country is aiming to "make up for a bad strategic choice made ten years ago."

The reusable SUSIE spacecraft will be able to carry upwards of 14,000 pounds (7 tons) of cargo. As ArianeGroup points out, aside from carrying cargo and crewed missions, it could also help in the construction of large orbital infrastructure. Not only that, it "will also help reduce orbital debris and assist with removing or deorbiting end-of-life satellites," the company says in its statement.

"Susie is the result of several years of work by our design teams and provides a particularly ingenious solution for future in-space servicing needs and for automated or crewed flight, the demand for which will only grow in the future," said Morena Bernardini, Head of Strategy and Innovation at ArianeGroup. "This is a project built on all the existing know-how at ArianeGroup and within European industry."

How does SUSIE compare to Starship?

Much in the same fashion as SpaceX's Crew Dragon, SUSIE will feature an abort system that will launch crew or cargo away from the core stage in the event of an anomaly.

In ArianeGroup's video animation, they also show the spacecraft performing a belly flop maneuver prior to landing, much in the same way as SpaceX's Starship prototypes have done in real life.

There's one key distinction between SUSIE and Starship, however. As rocket science, YouTuber Scott Manley pointed out in a tweet, "many stories are making [SUSIE] sound like a European answer to Starship, but it’s more like a large Dragon or Starliner, [as] it uses a disposable second stage to get to orbit."

That's because SUSIE needs an expendable second stage to reach orbit. This means it will be more like Crew Dragon, which currently launches atop a Falcon 9 with reusable boosters and an expendable upper stage. So, instead of acting as the next big step in spaceflight, SUSIE will really be helping Europe catch up with the U.S.'s current capabilities.

By the time it makes it to orbit, however, it may already find itself far behind the U.S. once again, as it aims to send humans to the moon once more using a fully reusable Starship as a lunar lander.

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