Slapping together a €112-million ($147-million) contract to continue work on a launch vehicle upgrade that could get scrapped eight months from now might seem odd. However, even if the European Space Agency's 19 member governments forgo the next phase of the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (Ariane 5 ME) in favor of developing a successor rocket, the award ESA gave to EADS-Astrium this month to continue work on the engine upgrade isn't for naught if key elements are salvaged for use in a next-generation launcher.
“This €112 million contract underscores that maturity of the Ariane 5ME program,” Astrium Space Transportation CEO Alain Charmeau said in an April 10 news release announcing the contract award. “As prime contractor, Astrium will continue to coordinate the work of more than 30 companies across Europe, with whom we have already completed major phases in the development of a launcher that anticipates the needs of both commercial and European institutional markets.”
The announcement comes just months ahead of ESA's November budget ministerial, where member states will decide the agency's next multiyear budget, including funding for launch vehicles. Although ESA approved €355 million to get started on the Ariane 5 ME at its last budget meeting in 2008, discord between ESA's top two financial contributors, France and Germany, has brought the future of the Ariane 5 ME into question as France presses the case for funding a next-generation launcher tentatively dubbed the Ariane 6.
A major ESA program designed to boost the current Ariane 5's performance by 20%, the Ariane 5 ME would be powered by a new upper stage equipped with the Vinci restartable cryogenic engine developed by Safran Group's SNECMA affiliate. Between the motor upgrade and a new extended nose fairing, the Ariane 5 ME would deliver 12,000 kg to geostationary orbit for the same price as the Ariane 5 as it exists today.
Led by Astrium Space Transportation, development of the Ariane 5 ME has been underway since December 2009 when ESA awarded an initial two-year development contract worth €150 million.
With the latest contract award now in hand, Charmeau expects ESA to give the go-ahead in November to complete development of Ariane 5 ME, an effort that would cost €1.5 billion in addition to the money spent to date.
“This new contract, as well as the additional activities currently in the contracting stage, will enable the development of the Ariane 5 ME to continue until the November 2012 ESA Ministerial Council meeting to decide on the start of the next phases in the project,” Astrium said in the news release.
In December 2011, ESA validated the Ariane 5 ME project following a four-month preliminary design review during which more than 100 European specialists in different fields approved its development plan and specifications for various sub-systems. In March Astrium and Air Liquide announced the creation of EuroCryospace, a strategic partnership focused on the development and manufacture of cryogenic fuel tanks, in particular the fuel tank for the upper stage of the Ariane 5 ME, to be produced at a new plant in Bremen, Germany.
“As soon as the member states make their decision known at the end of 2012, Astrium and its partners will commit to performing the Ariane 5 ME test flight from 2017, allowing Europe to consolidate its access to space,” Astrium said in the news release.