by Bill Ostrove, Forecast International
Increasing competition in the launch industry is creating a need for change in the Ariane lineup. Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) recently began operational flights of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle. India is also working on an entirely indigenously manufactured Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), which could offer cheap access to space. While the Ariane 5 currently used in Europe has a longer record of success than these new entrants, the launch vehicle is much more expensive.
To improve their competitive standing, European nations have begun exploring a cheaper alternative. France has been the main proponent of a new launch vehicle, popularly referred to as the Ariane 6. The Ariane 6 has also received support from others, such as SES, a satellite operator and major customer of launch vehicles.
While France led a group of European organizations in favor of developing a new launch vehicle, Germany opposed the plan, instead focusing on upgrading the current Ariane 5 under a program known as Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (ME). An ESA ministerial conference in November 2012 resulted in a short-term compromise. Under the agreement, ESA funded development of an upgraded Ariane 5 while also conducting initial design work on an Ariane 6. The design of the Ariane 6 was selected in July 2013 and approved later that year.
In November 2014, Germany agreed to drop demands to upgrade the Ariane 5. ESA will scrap the Ariane 5 ME, and focus solely on developing the Ariane 6. Developing a new launch vehicle is a risky venture; however, rather than funding two separate efforts, the space agency ultimately decided that its limited resources would be better spent on a next-generation launcher that will be more competitive.
In June 2014, Airbus and Safran proposed a new Ariane 6 design that would incorporate a modular approach, with two variants that could launch different size payloads, and liquid fuel. It will replace both the Soyuz and Ariane 5 in Arianespace’s lineup, and will share as many components as possible with the Ariane 5 and Vega to reduce development costs and gain economies of scale.
Additionally, the two companies proposed forming a 50-50 joint venture that would act as prime contractor for the Ariane 6 – a move the two say would reduce costs compared to the current industrial arrangement that relies on decentralized production and complex work share agreements. Airbus and Safran also proposed that the joint venture purchase CNES’s stake in Arianespace, making the firm entirely private. The new venture would be much more streamlined than the current Ariane 5 program. It would also be a much more commercial program, since it would not rely on subsidies from ESA and no government agency would own any part of production or marketing. The venture would still rely on government contracts for some of its launches.
ESA has said that a first launch could occur in 2020 or 2021. However, Forecast International believes 2022 is more likely given the budget situation in Europe and the difficulty of developing a new launch vehicle. Operational flights of the Ariane 6 will likely not begin until the middle of the next decade.