ESA Weighs Ariane 6 Options as Major Satellite Operator Seeks Industry Overhaul, Price Cuts

Artist's conception of Ariane 6. (Credit: ESA)
Artist’s conception of Ariane 6. (Credit: ESA)

Space News reports that ESA is weighing two options for its next-generation Ariane 6 launch vehicle as Arianespace cuts prices in response to competition from SpaceX. Meanwhile, satellite fleet operator SES is putting pressure on Europe’s launch vehicle industry to quickly reform itself.

A European Space Agency bid-evaluation team is expected to deliver its judgment by July 5 on two different designs for a next-generation Ariane 6 rocket — one it has been examining for about a year, and another it only discovered June 18.

The ESA Tender Evaluation Board’s recommendation will weigh heavily in a debate among a half-dozen European governments most concerned with launch vehicle production. Ministers from France, Germany and Italy are scheduled to meet July 8 in Geneva, at the invitation of the Swiss government, to solidify their own views of which way to go on Ariane 6.

An Ariane 6 depending mainly on identical solid-rocket boosters was the design these ministers decided in November 2012. It is this design that has been the object of multiple cost and production reviews at the 20-nation ESA since then.

But when it came time for industry to deliver its final assessments of that vehicle’s development cost, operating cost and in-service schedule, Europe’s two largest rocket-component builders, Airbus and Safran, provided a completely different alternative.

The Airbus-Safran rocket uses more liquid propulsion, can lift heavier payloads and comes in two models — one for smaller satellites of the type built for governments for science and Earth observation, and a larger version for the commercial telecommunications satellite market.

The Airbus-Safran plan would streamline development and manufacturing of Ariane 6 vehicles by reducing the number of subcontractors and the amount of government oversight. These changes would allow for lower development and operating costs, allowing the new rocket to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

Aviation Week reports that in addition to providing more flexibility, the Airbus-Safran design would help to bridge difference between France and Germany over the future of the Ariane launcher family. Germany has favored the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (ME) program, which would upgrade Europe’s existing booster to carry larger satellites. It has not been as enthusiastic about the solid-rocket design for Ariane 6.

Modifying the design to incorporate a liquid second stage is expected to give Germany, ESA’s second biggest financial backer after France, a larger role in Ariane 6 development. It could also help Air Liquide, a French supplier of liquid propellant for the Ariane 5, maintain France’s core competency in cryogenics.

But the overhaul raises questions as to the new vehicles’ schedule and cost.

Since November 2012, when the 20-nation ESA approved early work on the new rocket during a key budget ministerial meeting in Naples, the goal of the Ariane 6 has been to reduce total cost of ownership below that of Ariane 5, including development, production and operations.

Replacing the mostly solid-fueled design with one that favors liquid propellant would result in fewer solid stages, giving Italy’s Avio and Safran’s Herakles propulsion division smaller parts to play in the rocket’s production, potentially increasing its cost by forfeiting economies of scale.

Consequently, it could mean abandoning Europe’s stated goal of delivering 7 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) within seven years at a cost of €70 million ($95 million) per launch. Also unclear is whether the new design supports ESA’s goal of eliminating annual €100 million price supports needed to help Arianespace break even.

Meanwhile, SES Chief Technology Officer Martin Halliwell said that pressure from his company helped to inspire the Airbus-Safran joint venture and the development of a new design for Ariane 6. Halliwell says that Arianespace needs to cut prices, and Europe  must quickly reform its launch industry if it wants to survive.

In a comparison that has been debated before in Europe, Halliwell pointed to the expected approval by European governments in December of a new Ariane 5 upper stage to increase the vehicle’s power and flexibility.

“ESA is asking for 1.2 billion euros [$1.6 billion] just to complete the Vinci engine,” Halliwell said, referring to the upper stage propulsion system that will power the new Ariane 5 version, called Ariane 5 ME. “It has taken 12 years to complete that engine — the time since SpaceX has existed. SpaceX was zero and it has now built an entire launch system and they will now continue with a far more advanced system.

“Europe has to change gears, and get going,” Halliwell said. “I think they are now, finally, getting the message. They have to step back and make this thing happen. This Airbus and Safran move is the first real reaction. They are saying, ‘Look, we’re not going to survive if we stay like this.’”

Halliwell said that SES will order an all-electric-powered telecommunications satellite for its next purchase. Satellites that use electric propulsion weight significantly less than those powered by chemical propellants.

SES also is making an investment in an ESA’s Electra program, which aims to counter programs by Boeing and other American manufacturers who are working all-electric-powered satellites.

As ESA debates the future of the Ariane launcher, Arianespace has moved forward with a price cut and plans for a major reorganization of its industrial base to attract new customers and reduce costs. However, the moves will come with a short-term increase in costs for European taxpayers.

Arianespace’s decision to lower prices for smaller satellites riding on its heavy-lift Ariane rockets — a move Europe’s launch service provider made in response to price pressure from Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — has already resulted in several contracts to be announced in the coming weeks, Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel said.

With the new pricing policy bearing fruit, Israel said the next step will be to realign the company’s cost structure. Arianespace and its industrial contractors — which are also its principal shareholders — are scheduled to present the basis for a new, lower-cost industrial structure to European governments later this year.

The competition from Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX for satellites weighing around 4,000 kilograms, and Arianespace’s inability to cut costs as quickly as it cuts prices, will force the European launch supplier to ask European governments this year for a 16 percent increase in annual support payments.

In its 2013 annual report, Evry, France-based Arianespace said it will ask European Space Agency governments in December to allocate 116 million euros ($158 million) per year for the period between 2015 and 2018 to enable Arianespace to reach financial break-even. That figure compares with the current allocation of about 100 million euros per year for 2013 and 2014 that ESA governments approved in late 2012.

Ariane 5 launches two communications satellites at a time, one heavy and the other lighter. Arianespace has not always found it easy to pair such satellites, and now it is facing competition from SpaceX for the smaller ones.

The Ariane 5 ME program would upgrade the existing booster to facilitate the launching of larger satellites. The enhances are seen as a necessary interim step while Ariane 6 is being developed.