PARIS — The French space agency, CNES, team designing the future Ariane 6 rocket has set what it calls a “triple-seven” goal for the vehicle expected to replace the current heavy-lift Ariane 5 early in the next decade: seven years of development, seven metric tons of satellite payload to geostationary transfer orbit, and a price of 70 million euros ($91 million) for satellite launch customers.
The seven-year development goal starts in mid-2014, when European Space Agency () governments are expected to vote on full-scale production work. By that measure, Ariane 6 would be ready for its first demonstration flight in 2021.
The rocket would be able to carry a telecommunications satellite weighing up to 7,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, the destination of most commercial telecommunications satellites.
The target price tag of 70 million euros per launch for commercial customers was set to keep Ariane 6 competitive with what its backers assume will be increased competition from Space Exploration Technologies Corp. () of the United States, and from Chinese and Indian rockets in addition to Ariane’s historic competitor, the Russian Proton vehicle and its successors.
CNES Launcher Director Michel Eymard, in a presentation here Dec. 19 to French Research Minister Genevieve Fioraso, said CNES and industry have begun what is likely to be a two-year period of negotiations on how much it will cost to design Ariane 6 to the inaugural flight.
“Industry is saying 5 billion euros now, but we hope to get this down to 4 billion euros,” Eymard said. “For awhile, industry did not want to engage us on Ariane 6. That has recently changed, and we are now working together.”
Eymard’s presentation was delivered hours before the final Ariane 5 launch of 2012, a year in which thecommercial launch consortium flew the Ariane 5 seven times.
The rocket has now gone a decade — 53 launches — without a failure. Its dominance of the commercial market is occasionally masked by the fact that it typically carries two communications satellites into orbit at the same time. Its competitors usually carry one satellite per launch. On the surface, at least, Ariane 5’s current market status does not call for a vehicle overhaul.
But after months of hard selling that saw them pitted against much of France’s industry, CNES officials last year convinced Fioraso that Ariane 6 — less expensive and less powerful than Ariane 5, and carrying just one satellite at a time to orbit — is the way of the future.
The design of the rocket — two solid-fueled lower stages and a cryogenic upper stage, plus solid-fueled strap-on boosters — was frozen Nov. 21 during a meeting of ESA government ministers.ESA Launcher Director Antonio Fabrizi said this design, and no other, is what ministers approved.
An initial budget was set that looks to create synergies between the completion of work on the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (ME) rocket — basically the current Ariane 5 ECA with a new, restartable cryogenic upper stage — and the Ariane 6.
The German government, whose industry is heavily involved with Ariane 5 ME, had aligned itself with much of Europe’s rocket industry to resist CNES efforts to scrap Ariane 5 ME in favor of a direct push toward Ariane 6.
Germany appears to have won that piece of the argument. Ariane 5 ME received sufficient funding commitments at the November ministerial conference to move toward a first flight in 2017 or 2018. The vehicle will be able to lift satellites with a combined weight of 11,500-12,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit.
CNES and ESA officials hope Ariane 5 ME’s greater payload capacity may sufficiently improve the economics of building and operating Ariane 5 to reduce the annual support payments that ESA governments pay to Europe’s launch vehicle operator, Arianespace of Evry, France.
Ariane 6 has been conceived from the start as a “next-generation” rocket that in many ways looks like a throwback — more of a less-expensive Lockheed Martin Atlas 5, or a Proton launched from the equator. Ariane 5 can do more things for more customers.
But if it meets its design goal, Ariane 6 will reach a financial equilibrium that has eluded Ariane 5. CNES officials say economic criteria account for 43 percent of the design decisions made for the rocket, with technical criteria accounting for just 30 percent.
The remaining 27 percent of the design choices are being made on the basis of Europe’s existing industrial capacity.
French industry is responsible for around 50 percent of the construction of Ariane 5. Eymard said the agency assumes France will carry about the same load for Ariane 6.
Beyond the French contribution, all bets are off. CNES has penciled in Germany at 25 percent, and Italy at 10-15 percent. The Italian share should be relatively easy to secure because Italy already is heavily involved in production, with Snecma of France, of the solid-fueled strap-on boosters used on the Ariane 5 rocket. Italy is also the lead investor in the new Vega small-satellite launcher, which made its inaugural flight in early 2012.
Because of the all-but-guaranteed work share of Italian industry in the Ariane 6 solid-fueled stages, the Italian government is not likely to resist taking its 10-15 percent stake despite its public-debt crisis.
Ensuring German industry sufficient work will not be as straightforward, European government and industry officials said.
The difficulty is highlighted by the German government’s contributions to the Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 programs during the November ministerial conference.
The work was divided into three segments: One is dedicated to Ariane 5 ME, another to Ariane 6 and a third to finding synergies between the Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6 upper stages — both using the Snecma-built Vinci engine, now completing development.
ESA governments agreed to spend 208.4 million euros through 2014 on work dedicated to Ariane 5 ME. France is paying 42 percent of this sum, with Germany at 37 percent.
Work specifically dedicated to Ariane 6 received 188.9 million euros for the same two-year period. Here France is paying 61 percent of the total, with Germany at 5 percent and Italy, 10 percent.
The biggest chunk of work, 274.3 million euros, is dedicated to building as much overlap as possible into the Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6 upper stages. Germany agreed to finance 39 percent of this work, with France at 35 percent.