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.
The timing, observers say, could be critical, as Europe has not faced such a momentous decision on a major launch vehicle development for nearly 25 years. During that time, France has been the primary financier of launch vehicle development in Europe. But for the first time in ESA's nearly 40-year history, the German government has formed a consensus in support of maintaining Europe's independent access to space and says it will contribute one-third of the cost to fund launchers, if ESA will approve €1.4 billion ($1.8 billion) for full-scale development of the Ariane 5ME.
Astrium says the money could yield an operational upgrade by 2017, freeing ESA member states from €120 million in annual price supports paid to Arianespace, the European launch consortium that manages commercial Ariane 5 missions. Such relief, however, would come more than a decade after the Ariane 5 ECB was slated to enter service, a piece of history not lost on the French, who are eager to start work on what they have tentatively dubbed Ariane 6.
“What has bothered Germany is that its position on Ariane 5 ME is viewed as childish thinking focused on industrial policy,” says Marco Fuchs, CEO of German satellite manufacturer OHB. Industry has been arguing for a decade for launchers to be of strategic import to Berlin, he says. “If France wants Ariane 6, they have to go through Ariane 5 ME,” Fuchs asserts.
Christophe Bonnal, a CNES technical specialist, says three modular design options are in the offing: two solid-propellant rockets and an all-liquid-fueled launcher with solid strap-on boosters.
To date, the CNES analysis favors the solid-rocket concepts. Bonnal says even in the worst-case scenarios that assume a 20% decline in market price after 2020, when the rocket would enter service, the solid-rocket configurations could survive on eight launches per year, including three institutional ones for government customers.
“Definitely, we prefer the solid configuration today,” Bonnal said Oct. 3, during the 63rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Naples, Italy.
Bonnal says each design would be capable of delivering at least 2,100 kg (4,629 lb.) to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), the destination of most commercial telecom satellites, and that two of them—one solid, one liquid—could haul more than 8,000 kg to GTO.
The three concepts have several features in common: a cryogenic upper stage 4.4 meters (14.4 ft.) in diameter with a common bulkhead architecture propelled by the Vinci engine that is in development under Ariane 5ME; a large fairing 5.2 meters in diameter; and a payload interface of 1,780 mm (70 in.) with the payload encapsulated.