Indications of intra-European discord over the plan for replacing the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 heavy lift launcher that came to light on the eve of the show look set to be a main point of interest for ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain at his press briefing this morning.

The Ariane 6 project has been proceeding at pace with an eye on flights from about 2021 since ESA member states gave it the go-ahead at they key ministerial budget- and agenda-setting meeting in Naples in November 2012. Since then, ESA has named Airbus Defence & Space as prime contractor and established the rocket’s radical all-solid fuel and modular configuration. By November 2013 the project had passed its preliminary requirements review, carried out by experts from launch operator Arianespace and the French, German and Italian space agencies.

But now, with a system requirements review pending to help member states’ science ministers decide whether or not to continue with the project when they meet again in December, questions are being raised about whether France and Germany are in accord. France has traditionally led Europe’s launcher programmes, but German interests are known to want to play a larger role in future, and whether friction between them, upsets Ariane 6 may not be known until the ministerial meeting in Luxembourg.

Complicating the mix is the fact that Italy took the lead in developing the new Vega light launcher – whose solid fuel main stages are, essentially, going to be the building blocks of the modular Ariane 6.

ESA sees Ariane 6 as critical to Europe’s ambitions to remain a viable contender in a satellite launch market shaken up by the arrival of US start-up SpaceX and its relatively low-cost Falcon 9.

Ariane 5 has been a huge triumph, orbiting half of the world’s communications satellites and claiming 60% of the 2012 world market for geostationary launches. But while the rocket is extremely precise and reliable it is also hugely expensive, with a single-payload flight costing €150-200 million. However, even at that price Ariane 5 launches are understood to be loss-making for ESA’s launch operator, Arianespace. Its high cost in in large part blamed on its industrial organisation; while private-sector SpaceX has tailored the Falcon programme for low cost production, the Ariane 5 project is organised in part to satisfy the demands of European multi-national politics.

Speaking exclusively to Flight Daily News, ESA’s Stefano Bianchi, who heads the Vega programme and now spends much of his time dedicated to Ariane 6 development, stresses that the programme is on course as set out by ESA’s member states, and any major change of configuration would require ministerial agreement.

But, he says, he and his colleagues are confident they can bring Ariane 6 to fruition at the target launch cost of €70 million – a level that would match or even undercut SpaceX.

Bianchi declines to say how the industrial organisation of Ariane 6 can be designed to reach such a low cost. But, he says, it can be done: ESA and its industrial partners have “good people, good engineers and good teams”.

And, he emphasises, Europe has taken the political decision to ensure it has independent access to space.

Meanwhile, he adds, the Vega programme is also a huge triumph. Data from the rocket’s third sortie earlier this month show to have been “perfect”, placing Kazakhstan’s Airbus Defence & Space-built KazEOSat-1 high-resolution Earth observation satellite to within 70m of its intended orbital position.

Source: Flight Daily News