Europe’s next-generation Ariane 6 launcher has passed its preliminary requirements review, paving the way for completion of a first design analysis cycle by the end of February.

That first design analysis, which studies trade-offs for several subsystems, will be followed by a second cycle to inform a system requirements review, planned for October-November 2014.

Ariane 6 will replace the current Ariane 5 heavy lifter from about 2021. The new launcher is intended to lift payloads of between 3t and 6.5t to geostationary transfer orbit, suitable for orbiting the telecommunications satellites that make up many of Ariane 5's missions, along with government payloads.

Ariane 5 is highly reliable, but not very flexible; each rocket must be manufactured with a specific payload and orbit in mind.

Ariane 6 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 topped by a reignitable cryogenic fuel upper stage. To save development costs, that upper stage will be an adapted version of the upper stage Vinci engine being prepared by Snecma for the Ariane 5 ME, or midlife evolution, which will fly from 2017 and boost payload by 20% to 12t.

And, Ariane 6 is also drawing heavily on ESA’s new, lightweight launcher Vega, which made its first flight in 2012. Ariane 6’s first stage will consist of three motors arranged in-line, topped by a single unit for the second stage; these four motors, each loaded with around 135t of solid propellant, will essentially be taken directly from Vega.

Since ESA member states approved the Ariane 6 project at their five-year budget setting ministerial council meeting in Naples in November 2012, the agency has moved fast to get the new launcher project underway, quickly selecting Astrium as prime contractor and, by July 2013, establishing the design configuration. In parallel with the preliminary requirements review, carried out by experts from launch operator Arianespace and the French, Italian and German space agencies, ESA has consulted industry partners regarding launcher elements and is evaluating more than 160 responses. That consultation, says ESA, will help it select subcontractors for the second design analysis cycle and prepare an industrial plan for full Ariane 6 development, to put forward to member states at the next ministerial council meeting in spring 2014.