Ariane rocket ready to do battle

Ariane 5ME and 6 Ministers approved a dual track that encompasses Ariane 5ME (left) and Ariane 6 (right)

Europe's Ariane 5 rocket has established itself as the dominant force in the satellite launch market.

The big European vehicle throws up everything from three-tonne TV satellites to the 20-tonne ATV space truck used to resupply astronauts on the ISS.

Half of the major telecommunications platforms lofted every year ride the European battlehorse.

But as good as it is, Ariane is under pressure. Competitors are circling and changes are needed if the vehicle is to retain its benchmark status.

We got a glimpse this week of where the rocket is heading after research ministers approved a 600m euros programme of developments at their European Space Agency council meeting in Naples.

Work will continue to give Ariane 5 a major upgrade, to provide it with a more powerful upper-stage engine that will also have a stop-start capability.

These modifications will enable the vehicle to better optimize its payload capacity for heavier, more lucrative satellite customers - and also to offer a broader range of orbits to those clients.

This Mid-Life Evolution (ME), as it is known, is now scheduled to fly in 2017/18.

But ministers have not stopped there. At the same time, they want to see detailed studies to define the next generation rocket - an Ariane 6.

Early thinking is that this will be a smaller rocket than Ariane 5 with a modular design capable of lifting one satellite at a time weighing from three to 6.5 tonnes.

A final pronouncement on whether to proceed with the project is likely in 2014. A maiden flight could occur in 2021/22.

The Esa ministerial council outcome was warmly welcomed by Jean-Yves Le Gall, the man who heads up Arianespace, the commercial operator of Europe's big rocket.

"It was a great success," he told me. "Now we have a shining future. The most important consequence of the ministerial decisions is that our vision is now much further forward than it was before. Before we had just to launch Ariane 5. Now we have a reason which is launching Ariane 6 in 10 years' time, and I can tell you we have a lot of young people here who are very excited."

Ministerial meeting The research ministers of Europe will meet again in 2014 to review progress

There's been a lot of fuss recently about the impact that aggressive competitors will have on Ariane's market share.

You may have seen my interview last week with SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk where he said Ariane 5 had "no chance" in the face of his new Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. The European vehicle could get nowhere near his prices, the entrepreneur contended.

Start Quote

If you really want to exist in this business you must be very humble because it's a difficult business”

End Quote Jean-Yves Le Gall Arianespace

Certainly, there've been plenty of people queuing up to echo the voice of doom on Ariane. French politicians, for example, who visited the SpaceX factory in California came away wanting a direct move to Ariane 6. The successor vehicle is expected to incorporate much cheaper components and fabrication methods than the current rocket, or indeed Ariane 5ME.

But Le Gall calls for cooler heads. Ariane 5 is not about to fall away. The rocket has a proven track record of reliability, and in the launch business that is everything.

"Some of our competitors, for instance Proton, are suffering almost one failure every year, which is huge. And I want to remind people that behind us we have 52 successes in a row.

"And there are other competitors, such as SpaceX, who speak a lot but have not yet launched a lot, and I think if you really want to exist in this business you must be very humble because it's a difficult business, and in my opinion you can only really speak when you have an excellent track record."

Le Gall accepts that Ariane 5 is pricey, but says he has fulfilled his commitment to constrain price by reducing the cost of operating the vehicle's spaceport in French Guiana by 20%.

But there is no magic formula that will reduce the industrial cost of producing the existing Ariane 5.

Ariane launch It's now 52 successful flights in a row

Unlike the SpaceX Falcons which are made in one place (more than 70% of a vehicle by value is made in the single factory), Arianes by definition are made across Europe. A dozen countries are involved in the Ariane 5ME project. This community approach must change long-term, and it is likely that the Ariane 6, when it arrives, will have an industrial base pretty much confined to France and Germany.

That may well offend some Esa member states but it's a fact of life that research ministers will have to grapple with when they gather again in 2014 to pronounce on the next phase of Ariane 6 development.

They should also have a clearer idea then of what this rocket should look like. It seems obvious, but Esa director general Jean-Jacques Dordain has been asking satellite operators precisely what they want.

"I've asked them, 'what is the launcher that you dream of?'; and they've given me their dreams," he told reporters in Naples.

"What I wish to do now is tell the launcher industry in Europe, 'OK, can you now fulfil the dreams of the customers?'.

"The customers want, obviously, the most reliable vehicle in the world - and at least on that, Ariane 5 is much more reliable than a lot of other vehicles. They want a launcher that is available, and that will launch between 3-3.5 tonnes and 6-6.5t. And, number four, they want a rocket that is cheaper than Proton and Falcon 9. This is the cahier des charges (specification base)."

Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    If the UK stopped giving aid to India because it has its own space programme why are we still giving aid to the EU?

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Interesting that we get the costs (500 million) but no idea of what the profit margins are or if any of contributing nations to the ESA get anything other than 'glory' out of the whole Ariane thing. Given the scientific value of Ariane is non-existent, why exactly should European taxpayers give money to wealthy industrial fims who cannot function without state support? Taking from the poor...

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    This decision guarantees that Musk will be right, the Ariane can't compete.
    But the ESA could have a cost competitive rocket with a Ariane 6 with multiple Vulcains.
    The real shame of it is that the multi-engine approach would also provide Europe with a manned spaceflight capability. But the European public will never know of it because those studies showing this will be kept secret.

    Bob Clark

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Space X is just a transition company, it survive in the long term because it has no HEO capability and Skylon type vehicles (European) will dominate MEO and LEO jobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Continuing ...
    The real thing ESA should be worrying about long term is that their future plans continue to have almost zero innovation. Spend ten years catching up to someone like Space X and .. surprise they have jumped another ten years ahead of you.
    The first keys to better rockets should be the development of more powerful and efficient (fuel, RM,.etc) engines and more reusable structures.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Drawback with both technologies is that they are basically one-shot, and only equipped to carry inanimate objects... what's really needed is the next generation of Space Shuttle-style technology.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Rereading the article Ariane does look like its in trouble. The obvious problem and thing that tends to happen when you reduce costs is that you also reduce reliability. Space X has a huge advantage in its single site and single culture single language production, and in starting from a late slash advanced position. Even worse for them is the threat of SSTO launcher's like Skylon or the X-33...

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    And they will keep this up until some tragedy forces them back to earth.
    This may be necessary for these space-players to realize the wastage going on miles above our heads, as Earthlings continue to suffer.
    Can you explain why these projects seem so mandatory, especially now with the weak economy. It has to be air defence of some sort. It seems all research is designed to spy, harm and kill.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    #15 Little_Old_Me

    I would think healthcare is a particularly bad model to choose as an example because it is one of the areas where free enterprise is easily beaten by more socialist models.
    The real reason the US has stuck with private healthcare is that with profits of $100 billion per year they can LITERALLY afford to pay politicians bribes by the truck load. (same with t US Space ind :D )

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.


    As with the health sector as with space exploration - there are only two reasons why private could do it cheaper....

    ...because they predominatntly use technology developed by the public sector, and employ rocket sciencists trained by the state.....

    ....make any competitor set up a training academy & full range R&D programme.....then we'd see who was cheaper....

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    12. Agreed.The bungling European model of managment by committee is a failure. It is too costly and much too beaurocratic. These failings are due to be readily exploited by slicker and slimmer organisations like Space X.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    10.Entropic man - "Nothing like competition to improve the breed"

    Ah yes, as privatisation shows us in the energy, water, train et al sectors......

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    The challenge facing ESA's satellite launch service is not just technology, but also its business model.

    The two main competitors are U.S. private enterprises such as SpaceX, and the Chinese government, who provides not just the launch, but also satellite and support infrastructure design/build services, at a very competitive government subsidized package price with financing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    You really should check out Elon Musk (SpaceX) on Wikipedia. The guy is such a visionary that competing with him seems almost a lost cause.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Nothing like competition to improve the breed

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Remember that Space X is heavily funded by NASA, so don't be too hasty to discount government space programmes. Space X seem to be doing a good job so far, but they're still heavily dependent on existing infrastructure and I'm not sure they'll be fully independent any time soon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    If I was going to trust someone to put my 500 million pound satellite into orbit I would rather buy the guaranteed BMW transport than the untested TATA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Ariane 6 and Skylon are following almost exactly the same development schedule, if in 2022 both are ready for market, how will Ariane 6 compete against Skylon estimated 10 million pound per launch price, even Skylon never materialises, there's the reusable Falcon 9 in development by space x to consider It difficult to see how Ariane 6 would be able to compete in that type of market

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Far better putting govt and more private money into Skylon/Sabre engine and companies like Reaction Engines Limited. Re-usable SSTO is the long term future no matter how 'cheap'' expendable SLVs become.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    CharlesC to keep the Germans happy, whom have spent million Ariane 5ME. An they keep the French happy by promising them Arian 6 will be developed after 2014.

    Under-Used that can change quickly Falcon 9 has 4 missions behind it already looking at possible 7 more missions over the next year By 2015 they may well have a launch record good enough at a fraction of Ariane 5 price.


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