A Closer Look at Ariane 6

Two possible configurations for the Ariane 6 launch vehicle with two and three strap-on boosters at the base. (Credits: ESA /CNES/Arianespace)

CNES has published an overview of the planned Ariane 6 launch vehicle, which could eventually replace Ariane 5 in 2021 if the project gains the support of ESA members next year.

Ariane 6 would be a three-stage rocket capable of launching communications satellites weighing up to 6.5 metric tons into geosynchronous transfer orbit orbit (GTO). It is designed to launch single communications satellites rather than the pairs of them that the larger Ariane 5 launches.

Ariane 6 would have two solid or powder stages and an upper stage that uses hydrogen and liquid oxygen. (Credit: ESA / CNES / Arianespace)

Ariane 6’s first two stages would use P135 engines powered by solid or powder propellant. The third stage would use a new Vinci motor fueled by hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The rocket would have two or three strap-on solid-rocket motors on its first stage depending upon payload requirements.

The impetus behind the Ariane 6 is the larger growth of communications satellites. Not only are they getting heavier, it is increasingly difficult to find pairs of them to launch on the Ariane 5, which has a capacity of 9.4 metric tons to GTO.

Further, the launch market is very competitive, with Russia’s Proton and Ukraine’s Zenit boosters in the mix. By 2020, the Chinese Long March rockets — which account for very little of the commercial market — could also be a force, according to CNES.

Interestingly, the French space agency makes no mention of SpaceX and the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles. The Falcon 9 is already a force in the market, having captured many launch contracts before it has even placed a single communications satellite into orbit. That is a sign that the satellite community really wants competitors to the existing fleet of commercial boosters.

Europe has been divided over how to meet this new threat. The French have favored immediately beginning work on Ariane 6. The Germans — who have replaced France as ESA’s largest national contributor — have favored an interim plan to upgrade Ariane 5 booster.

The Ariane 5 ME (Mid-life Evolution), set to launch in 2016 or 2017, would enable the rocket to lift 11.2 metric tons to GTO.  The Ariane 5 ME could also cut launch current launch costs by up to 20 percent, reducing the need for European governments to subsidize the vehicle. The upgraded launcher also would feature the new Vinci cryogenic upper stage, which is also slated for use on Ariane 6.

When SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was asked last year what Europe should do, he said they should start on Ariane 6 immediately. Even with the upgrades, Ariane 5 had no chance to compete with Falcon 9, he said.

“Does this mean Elon Musk wants to contribute to Ariane 6? I don’t know,” ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain joked. “I must say we are more than ready to have additional contributors.”

It was a funny riposte, but an ironic one: Dordain actually agreed with Musk. He personally backed the French plan to immediately go forward with the development of Ariane 6.

ESA didn’t follow his advice. At the space agency’s ministerial meeting in November, officials instead backed immediate expenditures on Ariane 5 ME while going forward with  detailed definition studies on Ariane 6. They postponed any decision on whether to fully fund the new Ariane 6 booster until they meet again in 2014.

  • If Spacex manage to reuse their stages then the Ariane 6 will be obsolete before it ever flies. ESA should be backing Skylon.

  • Christopher James Huff

    Right, they should pursue a supertech spaceplane that is likely to be vastly more expensive than claimed, and which is at least a decade or two from its first launch, if it ever gets off the ground at all. Clearly the best way to succeed.

    If they want to compete with SpaceX, they need to get this thing flying, and start working on a better performing, reusable, liquid propellant first stage rather than those lousy solids. No matter what they do, they’re playing catch-up now.

  • I don’t share your pessimism regarding Skylon. I do however agree that it will be around a decade before we see one fly. Around the same lead time for Ariane 6.

  • Christopher James Huff

    Think about that for a bit. There’s nothing fundamentally new to develop in Ariane 6, it’s a smaller, cheaper version of what they’ve got. While with Skylon, nobody’s ever built anything like the engines, the airframe (it’s a complex composite spaceframe, nothing at all like a standard airplane in construction), the landing gear, the fuel tanks, the miraculously thin and lightweight ceramic skin, the active thermal protection system…even the runway will have to be specially reinforced. Do you really think the two will take a comparable amount of time to develop? Skylon’s stated development timeline is completely unrealistic, and they’re already pushing it back, a couple years at a time.

    In a field where operational costs are huge and propellant costs irrelevant, Skylon attempts to reduce cost by using an enormous, operationally complex vehicle that breathes air (taking major penalties in mass, drag, and engine power as a result) to avoid carrying a bit of dirt-cheap LOX. They even carry additional relatively-expensive, bulky, and difficult and hazardous to handle LH2 to allow this. The only reason it’s gotten anywhere is cargo-cult thinking that looking like an airplane means it’ll be as cheap as an airplane.

  • The decade or so timescale for Ariane 6 is stated in the article. The whole point of an airbreathing vehicle is to improve the mass fraction to orbit – it is not about saving the cost of buying the oxidiser, it’s about not having to carry it.

  • Aerospike

    While I sadly can’t disagree with your view on Skylon, it seems necessary to remind you that we are talking about a major ESA/Arianespace project and therefore any claim that a new rocket can be deployed in a short time frame is also very unrealistic!

    Ariane 5 took 9 years from project “go” to its first flight, or 11 years till it’s first successful flight.
    The small Vega rocket took even 14 years until first flight.

    Ariane 6 isn’t really just a scaled down Ariane 5, it’s a significantly different configuration and the proposed first flight in 2021 is already a bit optimistic and will only be achievable if they fund it/start working on it _right now_!

  • Aerospike

    What I find strange regarding the whole Ariane 5/6 discussion, is the fact that Ariane 6 is meant to replace Ariane 5. While this might be a good idea considering the financial aspects of launching ComSats to GTO, but isn’t that quite a huge decrease in launching capability for Europe/ESA?

  • Ariane 6 is all about placing as many solids on the stack as possible. The same rationale behind the defunct Ares family applies. Some in France want to keep its ICBM costs low, just like some in the US, mostly Utah. Efficiency is not in the equation, that is why SpaceX is not even mentioned 🙂

  • Christopher James Huff

    @Aerospike: I don’t disagree. My point was that focusing on Ariane 6 was their best bet for competing with SpaceX…not that they were in a particularly good position to do so. As I said, they’re playing catch-up: they should have started this years ago.

    Maybe the competition will provide sufficient motivation for ESA/Arianespace to really make an attempt to streamline and accelerate the process. SpaceX has shown it’s at least *possible* to do with a no-new-technology rocket. But whatever they do, better the Ariane 6 than something like the Skylon, for which the timeframe is more than “a bit optimistic” even after being bumped from 2020 to 2022.

  • delphinus100

    “…to avoid carrying a bit of dirt-cheap LOX.”

    Cheap, yes, but that’s not the point. Going all-rocket results in a vehicle weight that’s too great for any practical landing gear (it would drive the structure weight up even further, in a manner that never closes) and single-stage HTHL becomes impossible.

    But I agree that it’s challenging, and while deserving support, ESA indeed should not pin *all* its hopes on it.

  • Christopher James Huff

    That’s a reason not to use HTHL SSTO, not a reason to use airbreathing.

  • I’m not entirely sure how the SpaceX reusable booster would affect the Falcon 9’s ability to launch comsats, which have been getting heavier. I thought there was a substantial payload lift penalty with recovering the boosters.

    Of course, you might just end up launching smaller comsats but more of them at very inexpensive launch costs.

  • Aerospike

    It’s not that easy, since German and Italian companies are also involved in the production of the SRBs for Ariane 5/6 and Vega.

    That said, I’m not at all a fan of solids.

  • Christopher James Huff

    For those who are…a couple times SpaceX has aborted after ignition, fixed whatever the issue was, and gone on to launch within days later. And on one launch they lost an engine on the way up, but were able to continue on their primary mission with the remaining engines, and would have succeeded with the secondary mission if not for ISS safety concerns.

    With the Ariane 6, comparable failures mean total loss of vehicle and payload.

  • I thought there was a substantial payload lift penalty with recovering the boosters.

    Zubrin has some good commentary in his book (pp 30)

    So the keys to making reusable launch vehicles pay are to (a) have a high

    launch rate, (b) have a small ground staff, and (c) reuse the first stage.

    Reusing the upper stage (e.g. Space Shuttle) has a terrible impact on payload capability; payload capability is much less sensitive to extra mass required to reuse the first stage.

  • The only way Europe is going to compete with SpaceX in launchers is by doing it the same way. Private development.

    Bob Clark

  • Aerospike


  • ShaReRe

    If ESA will go ahead with Ariane-6, then the only result will be to knock themselves out of business. They should copy SpaceX’s Grasshopper idea and make it a reality, asap.

  • That’s more of a problem of government financed space programs than of space programs themselves. Witness SpaceX.

    Bob Clark

  • Even more importantly they should support privately developed launchers as NASA is doing.

    Bob Clark

  • Michael Martin-Smith

    Basically, ESA has three choices- build Skylon, outperform SpaceX with fully reusable vehicles, or become to space launchers what the steam car is to internal combustion.
    It has at best 10 years to do it. Skylon has proved the most difficult unknown in its technology- light weight cooling systems.
    The rest can be done for c £12 billions. If ESA will not do it, the UK can and should go it alone. No other transport technology on the horizon in the UK offers reduced costs for its users, or is so eminently capable of promoting vast expansion of industry and enterprise. Forget the High Speed Train- Skylon will cost a third to a half as much and deliver far, far more.
    What a no brainer for the UK. Pity we lack brains where it counts!

  • I’m not sure how building Skylon would fit into ESA’s plan. Where are the jobs for it in France and Germany? From the standpoint of Reaction Engines, how do you get involved with ESA without having to spread the jobs throughout Europe? And will that raise development costs to an unsustainable level?

  • We just seem to have a political system which encourages PR types who are good with sound bites and bad with actual vision.

  • Skylon will not met any of their parameters (performance, time, payload, cost). Anyone that thinks differently lives in fantasyland.