Europe’s bid to retain independent, cost-competitive access to space in a launch market disrupted by US start-up SpaceX has been given solid financial momentum with formal contracts to develop the heavyweight Ariane 6 and light Vega C rockets.
The €2.4 billion ($2.7 billion) contract for the two variants of the modular Ariane 6, to fly from 2020 with full operations from 2023, includes some €680 million to reach a preliminary design review in mid-2016. Prime contractor Airbus Safran Launchers says the total cost of developing the launcher, including solid fuel boosters to be shared with Vega C and some €400 million in industrial investment, will be about €3 billion.
Vega C, a development of the successful, Italian-led Vega project which has made five flawless flights since its February 2012 debut, will fly from 2018; development by ELV, a joint venture between Avio and the Italian space agency ASI, was awarded €395 million.
The European Space Agency also awarded French space agency CNES a €600 million contract to build an Ariane 6 launch pad and preparation facilities at Europe’s CNES-run spaceport in French Guiana, where excavation has begun.
Ariane 6 and Vega C embody a dramatic political and industrial transition in the European launch industry. Though a technical and commercial triumph – the current Ariane 5 recently notched up its 66th successive launch success and is the dominant player in the lucrative market for telecommunications satellite launches – fears of being undermined by a structurally high cost base have focused minds at ESA and in European capitals.
A single-payload Ariane 5 flight costs €150-200 million and launch operator Arianespace would lose money on each flight without public subsidies. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, meanwhile, is not a great threat technically, but the business was built for efficiency and undercuts Ariane 5 by about 30%.
In the launch business, reliability does not come cheaply, and it must be noted that while SpaceX has drawn much attention, it has launched Falcon 9 just 19 times, suffering one partial and one total failure, in June 2015. But Ariane 5’s high costs are also a product of a complicated industrial structure born of Europe’s traditional practice of rewarding with workshare the many nations that contribute to programme development costs.
ESA’s member state governments, however, have repeatedly underscored their determination to ensure that Europe maintains its independent capability to reach space – and do it without resorting to state subsidies.
The plan is for Ariane 6 to fly a dozen times yearly for €70 million per launch. That cost expectation is underpinned by two initiatives. One is a modular design intended to support batch building of key components and cut order-to-launch times.
The other is an overhaul of the industrial structure that will halve the number of countries participating in Ariane 6 to just six. A year ago, Airbus and Safran – the prime contractor and propulsion prime, respectively, for Ariane 5 – set about, with the blessings of ESA and the French government, to form a 50-50 joint venture to consolidate the Ariane programme. The joint venture will also, probably later this year, take control of Arianespace by buying out CNES, which now holds 34%. And, critically, it will bear all commercial market risks during exploitation, without member state subsidies.
Europe is also having to absorb new, internal ambitions. While France has traditionally been the clear leader in European rocketry (Ariane rockets are so-named because the French have historically paid the bills), Italy and now Germany are bringing new technical and financial resources to bear.
Vega is named after the star or, if one prefers, it is an Italian acronym for “Vettore Europeo di Generazione Avanzata” (Advanced Generation European Launcher). The Vega project to provide Europe with a modern, light launch option – capable of delivering around 1.5t to low-Earth orbit, ultimately for a launch cost of about €35 million – was driven by ASI, Avio and other Italian interests, despite apparent French indifference to the project.
As soon as the smoke cleared from Vega’s maiden flight in 2012, Germany’s DLR aerospace agency expressed interest in joining the Italians in developing a new, all-European restartable upper stage to replace, eventually, a unit bought from Ukraine.
Germany's interest in turning its technical hand to restartable engines, which are necessarily liquid-fuelled, is understood to have been a source of discontent in discussions over the final configuration for Ariane 6.
As originally proposed, and initially approved by ESA member states at their November 2012 ministerial-level conference in Naples, Ariane 6 was to feature a solid fuel main stage, along with its solid boosters. Since then, the concept has been modified to feature a liquid fuel main stage and, depending on the mission, either two or four strap-on boosters.
The cost-saving focus remains, however, and the liquid fuel main stage may indeed prove to be a money saver. Not only will it be essentially the same motor as the restartable upper stage, it shares much of its development with an improved engine being devised for the Ariane 5 ME, which will fly from mid-2017 and bridge the gap to Ariane 6.
While Ariane 6’s main stage will no longer be common with Vega’s, its solid boosters will double as the main stage of the Vega C.
And, a liquid fuel main stage has another advantage, in that the motors can be recycled. A concept unveiled earlier this year could see Ariane 6 rockets, where the mission profile allows, configured with a winged and detachable main engine module that will fly back to French Guiana for refurbishment and re-use.