October 15, 2012
Amy Svitak Naples, Italy, and Paris
If things had gone according to plan, Europe would be flying a more powerful and efficient version of its Ariane 5 rocket today, one that could compete in the commercial market without public subsidies, and development of a next-generation launcher would be well underway.
Instead, the Ariane 5 suffered a serious failure in 2002 that slowed plans to boost its performance and shelved what were mostly French ambitions to start work on a less costly successor.
An evolution of the Ariane 5 ECA that now delivers roughly half of the world's communication satellites to orbit each year, the enhanced Ariane 5 ECB would have entered service in 2006. But it was 2008 before the European Space Agency (ESA) approved low-level funding for early development. The project was rebranded the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (Ariane 5 ME), and the money—roughly €300 million—started to flow, most of it going to Ariane 5 prime contractor Astrium Space Transportation's facility in Bremen, Germany.
As ESA's largest contributor, Berlin is eager to see additional funding approved for Ariane 5 ME when ministers from the agency's 20 member states meet next month to hash out a multiyear spending plan. Few question Germany's influence over the space agency, or the likelihood that Ariane 5ME will survive the November budget meeting. But last month ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain said he favors starting work now on a next-generation rocket.
“I strongly believe we have to decide, as quickly as possible, to develop a new-generation launcher to be competitive in the market as it is forecast, and with the competitors,” Dordain said at the Berlin air show last month, a reference to new launch vehicle developments in India, China and the U.S., where Space Exploration Technologies' low-cost Falcon 9 is challenging the global launcher market (see page 30).
Meanwhile, Japan is struggling to remain relevant with its expensive H-II vehicles and retain critical launch sector skills (see page 28).
Aware of looming competition, French space agency CNES has been studying next-generation launch vehicle concepts for a modular Ariane 6 that would use existing technologies and production facilities to replace the cumbersome, costly and commercially reliant Ariane 5.