ESA’s Ariane 6 Cost Estimate Rises with Addition of New Launch Pad

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PARIS — The European Space Agency on Sept. 23 presented to seven of their governments an updated plan for developing the next-generation Ariane 6 rocket, with lower estimated recurring production costs but a higher overall development cost owing to the need for a new, Ariane 6-dedicated launch pad, European government and industry officials said.

Meeting in Zurich, ministers from seven ESA member states — France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland — asked the 20-nation ESA and industry to continue to refine Ariane 6 cost estimates. They agreed to meet Nov. 13 in Cologne, Germany, to review progress.

Time is running short if ESA governments wish to maintain a Dec. 2 conference of ESA nations to make firm financial commitments on future launchers. As expected, the Sept. 23 meeting discussed only in passing, and in no detail, Europe’s future role in the international space station.

ESA governments have only halfway committed to continued space station use to 2020. The funding needed to keep up their commitments to the station under the current arrangements with NASA, the station’s general contractor, is expected to be decided at the December meeting.

But given some nations’ financial hardship, it is unclear whether the meeting, even if it is maintained, will be able to do more than sign off on funding for more than a year or two.

Also to be reviewed at the December meeting is the ExoMars two-launch mission to Mars, with Russia as a partner, in 2016 and 2018. Financing for the 2016 mission appears assured, but the 2018 launch, including a European rover, has not been secured.

Development of the latest Ariane 6 configuration — an upgraded Vulcain 2 main cryogenic stage topped by a Vinci-engine-powered upper stage flanked by two or four solid-rocket boosters each carrying 120,000 kilograms of propellant — would cost about 4 billion euros ($5.2 billion) and could be ready as early as 2020, according to the proposal presented by ESA.

The cost figure includes some 700 million euros for an all-new launch installation at Europe’s Guiana Space Center on the northeast coast of South America.

Earlier designs assumed that the launch complex for the current Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket could be modified to host Ariane 6, saving substantial costs.

“It now appears that the ELA-3 [the Ariane 5 installation] will require so many modifications and upgrades for Ariane 6 that it would be better to build an entirely new facility,” one official said. “But all these costs need to be studied more carefully in the coming weeks.”

ESA and the Airbus-Safran joint venture that proposes to manage Ariane development also floated per-launch costs that were lower than previous estimates. The lighter-version Ariane 6-2, with two solid-rocket boosters, could be built for as little as 65 million euros assuming a nine-per-year launch rhythm, officials said.

The heavier Ariane 6-4, intended mainly for the commercial market and capable of carrying two satellites weighing a combined 11,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, could be built for 85 million euros each, again assuming a nine-per-year production rate.

Airbus Group Chief Executive Tom Enders made a brief statement to the ministers restating his proposal that the Airbus-Safran team assume the role of the Ariane 6 design authority, a function now assured by ESA and the French space agency, CNES.

While no other Ariane 5 configuration is on the table, there remains the question of whether Germany will refuse to commit to Ariane 6 without an agreement from France and the rest of ESA to build the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution rocket, which also would use the Vinci upper stage and which has been in development for a decade.

To complete Ariane 5 ME, which would carry more satellite payload than the current Ariane 5 ECA, would cost about 1.2 billion euros. The vehicle could be ready for a first launch in 2018.

German officials have argued that Ariane 5 ME is the surest, least risky investment choice for the moment, at least until Ariane 6’s cost and performance is fully assessed.

But it is not clear that producing both vehicles would fit inside ESA’s financial cap of 8 billion euros over 10 years for launchers, including continued operations of Ariane 5 and the Vega small-satellite rocket.

ESA and the industry team say the newly reimagined Ariane 6 includes so many synergies with Ariane 5 and ongoing development work that it could be built in time for a first launch in 2020.

Introducing into the mix the Ariane 5 ME — which would fly only two years before Ariane 6 — makes little sense, government and industry officials say, especially since it likely would exceed the cost cap. More importantly, these officials said, it would force a delay in the Ariane 5, to perhaps 2025, as ESA spreads out development charges to stay within the agreed-to financial corridor.

Large satellite fleet operators — Ariane 5’s main customers — and the Arianespace launch service consortium, which operates the vehicle, have all lined up behind Ariane 6. So has the French government, which has agreed to pay about 50 percent of the costs.

Germany is indispensable in the negotiations because it is being asked to increase the amount it spends annually on launch vehicles. One official said the expected German role in Ariane 6 would boost Germany’s annual spending on Ariane from 100 million to around 170 million euros per year.