Ariane 6 Leads Europe’s Bid For Space Launch Comeback
Progress in the Ariane 6 program and Avio's divorce from Arianespace would normally be significant news items in the European space launch sector’s hectic recent history. But their significance may pale in comparison with the complete reshaping the industry might undergo in the next couple of years as the European Space Agency organizes a competition for its future launchers and relinquishes its technical authority.
Europe may reasonably expect to be back in the global space launch race in the short term, thanks to the Ariane 6. But for more far-reaching changes, a long list of questions is beginning to emerge. Will Avio successfully morph into a launch service operator? Will some of the many European small-launcher projects evolve into larger vehicles? Will the continent manage to make the most of reusable launcher technologies, both technically and economically?
- The launch vehicle passes a decisive test
- Small launchers in development might evolve into heavy-lift vehicles
At stake in the upcoming transformation is Europe’s sovereign access to space, long provided by the Ariane family (AW&ST Sept. 18-Oct. 1, p. 48). The triggering event for the reset is easy to name: SpaceX’s success, thanks both to its intrinsic strong points and support from the U.S. federal government. Arianespace’s long dominance of the launch market began when the U.S. commercial space launch sector grew dormant, largely due to NASA’s focus on the space shuttle. That situation radically changed with SpaceX’s maturation.
The U.S. company’s slashed prices for Falcon 9 launch services became a major issue for Europe’s space industry. Designing the Ariane 6-Vega C tandem was the European Space Agency’s (ESA) first answer in 2014. But that concept has shown its limits—and in unexpected ways, considering Europe’s strong record with launcher development.
After analyzing the results of recent critical tests, ESA announced that the first Ariane 6 launch will take place between June 15 and July 30, 2024. The long-awaited launch window culminates a development program that is four years late and has created a capacity gap.
Significant technical issues have been solved and the schedule has been stabilized, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said Nov. 30 at a joint press conference with representatives of prime contractor ArianeGroup, launch service operator Arianespace (an ArianeGroup subsidiary) and French space agency CNES (the operator of Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana).
The long-duration hot-fire test of the main stage’s Vulcain 2.1 engine a few days earlier on a test model in Kourou was a success, Aschbacher said. It was the second of two crucial assessments considered prerequisites to planning the first launch. The first one was in September at a DLR aerospace center test site in Lampoldshausen, Germany and involved the upper stage.
“We have enough problems behind us to announce a date, but we still have work to do,” ArianeGroup CEO Martin Sion said. The program had long been impeded by serious technical issues, such as the tricky development of the umbilicals—mechanical arms that support cryogenic connections between the launchpad’s systems and upper-stage tanks. The issues repeatedly created uncertainty in the schedule.
The more favorable recent outcomes are boosting confidence in the program. While the announced period for the first launch assumes everything goes to plan, the schedule is now much more reliable, according to Aschbacher and Sion.
The next tests are to focus on non-nominal situations. “We will just demonstrate . . . the systems are fault-tolerant,” Sion said. “We do not expect major hiccups.” In December, hot-fire tests are slated for the main stage in Kourou and the upper stage in Lampoldshausen. The qualification review of the full system, including the launcher and the launchpad, is set for late April. The hoped-for green light should coincide with a more precise launch period target.
The first flight model of the Ariane 6 (FM1, as opposed to the test model, which is dedicated to ground trials) will be delivered to Kourou in late February, Sion said. After final assembly, FM1 is slated to reach the launchpad in late April. The rocket—a medium-lift Ariane 62 with two strap-on boosters—will still be part of the ESA-led development program.
The second Ariane 6, also an Ariane 62, is planned to lift off late next year. It would be the first commercial launch of an Ariane 6 and is intended to carry the French government’s CSO-3 military observation satellite.
The first Ariane 64, the heavy-lift variant with four boosters, is set to come at an unspecified later date in the program. The time frame would be compatible with the requirements set by Amazon, Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel said. A prominent customer of Ariane 64, Amazon accounts for 18 of the 28 launches in Arianespace’s orderbook.
After a ramp-up phase, ESA, Arianespace, ArianeGroup and CNES are aiming for 9-10 launches per year. Reaching that cadence is described as an industrial challenge by most actors in the European space industry, including Sion. However, Toni Tolker-Nielsen, ESA’s director of space transportation, notes that the Ariane 6’s ramp-up was designed to be faster than those of previous programs. All the participants are under pressure from the EU. European Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton has expressed concern about the availability of launchers for the EU’s sovereign space programs, such as the IRIS2 constellation for secure, high-speed communications.
Moreover, the target cadence has fluctuated over recent years amid concerns that too low a rhythm would mean unprofitable operations. ESA member states have agreed to compensate for the low cadence with extra public funding for the first 15 launches. As a result, Arianespace should be able to offer Ariane 6 launches at a competitive price, Tolker-Nielsen said. With FM16, Arianespace will enter a stabilized exploitation phase and have a balanced business model, Israel added.
Meanwhile, after 11 years of cooperation with Arianespace, Avio is preparing to become an independent launch service operator in the coming months.
The Italian government has long been negotiating for Avio to operate the Vega family of launchers outside of Arianespace’s umbrella. Simultaneously, the French government has been adamant that the delayed Ariane 6 program should receive extra funding. The German government wanted a more competitive approach for ESA launchers. After discussions, the three governments have come to an agreement.
Avio is to become launch Vega C’s operator progressively by mid-2024, assuming the responsibilities for flight operations and sales, the company said in a statement Nov. 7. “An agreement is expected to be reached between Arianespace and Avio for the management of the 17 already contracted flights,” it added. Vega C is the upgraded, light-to-medium-lift version of the light Vega, both of which Arianespace has operated.
“Becoming more vertically integrated is the way of the world,” says Maxime Puteaux, principal advisor at Euroconsult. “Avio will have to prove its worth in operations, logistics and sales.”
Avio is aiming to increase the launch cadence, an effort seriously impeded by Vega and Vega C launch failures. As Avio and Arianespace part ways, what kind of improvement can Avio expect? “We will be able to directly manage the revenue stream, get closer to customers to understand their needs and pursue further opportunities,” Avio CEO Giulio Ranzo says.
“This gives Avio a free hand to have its entire value chain under control,” Puteaux says. “According to Avio, this will mark the end of unfair treatment. As Arianespace belongs to ArianeGroup, Avio executives believe Arianespace has tended to place payloads on Soyuz, Ariane 5 and Ariane 6, instead of the Vega family. But Vega’s market traction is mainly impacted by its own reliability issues.”
If one only looks at payload capacity, the Ariane 62 and Vega C could be seen as competing. “However, their mission profiles are different,” Puteaux emphasizes.
The relationship has been contentious as of late. “Recent mishaps with Vega and Vega C have caused discomfort inside Arianespace,” Puteaux says. “On the French side [which largely dominates Arianespace’s organization], Avio’s departure is seen as a weight taken off the company’s shoulders.” ArianeGroup will have to deal with Avio despite the divorce, as Avio supplies the P120C booster.
Overall, it is welcome clarification for Europe’s space launcher industry, Puteaux says. “The new situation clarifies the funding scheme for future launchers,” he notes. “An Italian economic support plan is benefiting Avio’s M60 engine, to power a future reusable launcher. ArianeGroup is developing Maia, a future reusable launcher in Vega’s category.”
At the ESA level, funding will be made available on a competitive basis. Avio is listed, and the stock exchange markets and launcher industry live on different timescales. That could create problems for Avio’s share price, Puteaux says.
ESA member states Nov. 6 agreed to increase the minimum number of institutional launches for the Vega C, now at a guaranteed three per year, up from two. Additional funding was allotted to cover extra production costs, with as much as €21 million ($22.6 million) per year for the Vega C.
As cost overruns, delays and ensuing lost market shares for both the Vega C and Ariane 6 indicate, Europe’s first answer to SpaceX proved insufficient. The worsening predicament took center stage at the ESA Space Summit early in November in Seville, Spain.
“ESA member state ministers have launched a new competitive European ambition in space transportation to empower Europe to regain its commercial position,” ESA said in a post-summit statement. Aschbacher kicked off the debates with an admission of failure. “In the face of the fierce competition from SpaceX, Ariane 6 has failed to meet the overarching requirement to halt public support to commercial exploitation,” he said in a preparatory document.
Under the agreement made at the summit, ESA’s role shall evolve from a launch system-procuring entity. Its new role is to be that of an anchor customer, procuring commercial services with long-term commitments. ESA would act also as an enabler, funding demonstrators and supporting research and technology endeavors.
For future launchers, ESA will create a competition between would-be launch service providers. “The way the Ariane 6 program was shaped—private players creating a rocket under public oversight—will remain a one-off,” Puteaux says. “The rules of the game have changed in the global space launch industry; they are also changing in Europe. May the best [team] win!” The details of the so-called European Challenge are planned to be determined at ESA’s ministerial meeting in 2025.
The outlines are known. Within the framework of the European Challenge, ESA would procure demonstration and follow-on space transportation services. Overall technical and commercial authority, as well as responsibility for the services, would be retained by the commercial operator. Private cofunding of development would be required. Public funding would be associated with attainment of technical and financial milestones.
“Becoming cost-competitive will be possible only after a competition designates the best candidate,” Puteaux says. “Otherwise, Europe’s industry faces the prospect of downgrading. European institutions do not want to be only able to meet their own needs, as Japan does.”
Small launchers may be a focus, but with a longer-term vision. “No one has demonstrated the sustainability of a small-launcher business model,” Puteaux says. “A small launcher is not a purpose in itself.” As a result, the designer of the next European heavy launcher may be found among Avio, Isar Aerospace, MaiaSpace and RFA.