July 15, 2013
The European Space Agency (ESA) has settled on the basic design of the Ariane 6, the first of many steps toward developing a next-generation launch vehicle to succeed the heavy-lift Ariane 5, to keep pace with new developments in China, Russia, India and the U.S.
A more cost-driven and less cumbersome rocket than the Ariane 5 of today, the Ariane 6 configuration is aimed at rapid, lower-cost development and a reduced launch price of €70 million ($90 million).
But despite a clear bias toward affordability, it remains to be seen whether the 20-nation ESA can build the Ariane 6 competitively while finding work for key financial backers, notably Germany, which funds 20% of Ariane 5.
“There is a lot of work now to be done on this configuration, to see who can produce what at what price,” says Antonio Fabrizi, head of ESA's launch vehicle directorate. “Only in the coming months, with data from industry, will we verify if it is in line with the target or not.”
The new design, known as “Multi P Linear,” comprises a first stage of three solid-fueled boosters, a second stage powered by a nearly identical booster and a restartable cryogenic third stage. This stage is based on the Vinci engine being developed at Safran's Snecma motors division as part of an Ariane 5 mid-life upgrade, the Ariane 5ME.
Although less capable than the Ariane 5, which can deliver two payloads weighing a combined 9,000 kg (20,000 lb.) to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), the Ariane 6 will launch single payloads and is designed to be less reliant on the commercial market to break even.
French space agency CNES, which is expected to fund about half of Ariane 6 development, has spent several years studying designs that could be quickly developed for around €4 billion. In the past six months, project teams at ESA and CNES weighed concepts based on initial CNES designs calling for a modular rocket that could haul 2,000-6,500 kg to GTO, with the potential to grow lift capacity up to 8,000 kg.