European launch operator Arianespace has set itself the challenge of making 2014 a record year, with 12 launches from the spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana – eclipsing the eight flights of 2013 and its all-time high of 10 in 2011.
Speaking in Paris at the start of what will be the company’s 30th year of launch operations, chief executive Stéphane Israël said the orderbook provides payloads for up to 14 launch opportunities in 2014, but the actual number of missions will reflect the availability of satellites. The goal, he said, is to launch the heavy-lift Ariane 5 six times, with the other six sorties coming from four Soyuz missions and two flights of the lightweight Vega rocket.
Following the closing flight of 2013 – the 19 December Soyuz launch of the European Space Agency’s Gaia star-mapping satellite – Arianespace will open its 2014 manifest with an early-February Ariane 5 launch of two geostationary telecommunications satellites and a French-Italian military payload.
To accommodate a busy launch schedule, a new fuelling facility has been approved for Soyuz, and other improvements are being made in French Guiana, said Israël.
But while Ariane 5 is an undoubted success story, improving cost competitiveness is one of the key challenges facing Arianespace and Airbus, whose space division (known as Astrium until this year) is the rocket’s prime contractor. Ariane 5 rockets have scored 67 complete successes in 71 flights since 1996, racked up an unbroken run of 57 successful launches, have orbited half of the world’s communications satellites and claimed 60% of the 2012 world market for geostationary launches. As Israël spoke in Paris, however, the dust was settling at Cape Canaveral following the second – successful – launch of SpaceX’s Ariane 5 rival, Falcon 9, an all-new rocket which can undercut Ariane 5’s launch cost by some 30%.
To address that cost gap, Ariane 5’s industrial partners are developing a new payload mounting system that will increase the volume available inside the rocket’s existing faring to better accommodate the coming generation of satellites with electric propulsion systems. An ME (Midlife Evolution) version of the rocket will increase payload by about 20%, to 12t to geosynchronous orbit, without increasing launch costs that stand at €150-200 million for a single-payload mission. As the big telecommunications satellites, which Ariane 5 is so proficient at hefting to the highest geosynchronous orbits, weigh about 6t each, the ME variant will, crucially, be able to accommodate two of these high-value payloads on a single flight when it commences operations from 2017 or 2018.
The ME variant will also bridge the gap to Ariane 6, which will fly from 2021. This will look to reduce costs and increase flexibility by replacing Ariane 5's cryogenic main stages with a modular, solid-fuel first and second stage configuration – the modules will be, in essence, Vega main stages – topped by a re-ignitable cryogenic fuel upper stage. That upper stage will be an adapted version of the Snecma Vinci restartable engine which is being developed for Ariane 5 ME, and will also feature specific propellant tanks.
Cost objectives for Ariane 6 have yet to be detailed, but Alain Charmeau, head of the Airbus unit that builds Ariane 5, spoke at the 2013 Paris air show about slashing costs by 40-50%, a level that would undercut Falcon 9. Charmeau referred specifically to reducing the workforce dedicated to Ariane rockets, which are currently produced in parts at plants in several European countries and integrated near Paris before being shipped to Kourou for final assembly, payload integration and fuelling.
That notion of streamlining the underlying industrial structure is a theme being echoed at Airbus all the way up to group chief executive Tom Enders. But in any case, the all-solid fuel, modular concept should provide for dramatic improvements. Where each Ariane 5 must be tailor-made for a specific payload and flight plan, Ariane 6 will in principle allow relatively rapid assembly from solid fuel sections that can be made in large batches and stored.
Meanwhile, batch buying is one approach to cost savings not lost on Arianespace. In December 2013, it ordered 18 additional Ariane 5 ECA launchers for more than €2 billion, or some €111 million each, for launch from 2017 through the end of the decade. This follows the 35 ordered in 2009.
As Israël said in Paris in reference to his own operation: “We’ve taken important steps that are making Arianespace even more competitive and more reactive through continuous improvement.
“Building on our track record of mission success, these steps contribute to Arianespace’s flexibility, quality and the ability to compete on price. And my strategy is to ensure our company is increasingly entrepreneurial as it continues to adapt to the market evolution.”