Europe's bid for a smooth transition into next-generation rocket technology was put formally into motion on 30 January with the signing of a firm development contract for an improved version of Ariane 5 - and an all-new replacement for the venerable heavy lifter.
With a €108 million ($146 million) European Space Agency contract formally making it prime contractor, Astrium can continue development of the Ariane 5 ME (Midlife Evolution) - intended to boost the rocket's payload to geostationary orbit by a fifth, to 12t, while holding launch costs steady. Ariane 5s have orbited some half of the world's communications satellites, and the ME version - set to fly from 2017 - is intended to bridge the gap to an all-new Ariane 6, planned for service from 2021. Astrium chief executive François Auque described the two as needing to move quickly.
The contracts follow approval by ESA member states in November 2012 of a range of programmes that will keep the space agency busy until at least 2017. But the launchers are both high-profile projects and crucial to Europe's ability to remain at the forefront of space access technology.
Ariane 5's payload capability and reliability have kept ESA active in the lucrative market for communications satellite launches. The ME version will be able to orbit two of these huge spacecraft in a single launch.
Although reliable, however, the rocket is not flexible; each rocket must be manufactured to deliver a specific payload, so costs are high and lead times long. Its replacement is meant to be far quicker and cheaper to launch - the target budget is €70 million per flight - with the same reliability.
Ariane 6 has yet to be specified, but will broadly be a modular design based on solid-fuel main stages that can be made in advance, stored and assembled as required, and a cryogenic, restartable upper stage; the rocket is intended to have a payload capacity of 3t to 6.5t in geostationary orbit. Under the latest contract, Astrium will launch the initial Ariane 6 definition and feasibility studies.