Affordability, Not Geographic Return, Key Criteria for Europe’s Next Rocket

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BERLIN — The European Space Agency (ESA) will select two competing proposals by late June to design a next-generation rocket that, if accepted by European governments in November, could succeed the current Ariane 5 heavy-lift vehicle within 15 years, ESA officials said.

The 19-nation agency is taking a new approach to launcher design by asking industry from the start to design a cost-effective rocket that would appeal to owners of satellites, both commercial and governmental, without regard for where the vehicle’s contractors are located.

ESA earlier this year canvassed European satellite operators, asking them to describe the kind of vehicle they would be most likely to use. The result: a launcher that would be available without overly long delays and that would be capable of launching satellites weighing 3,000 to 6,500 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, one at a time.

Perhaps the most surprising element to the ESA solicitation, which was issued in early April and calls for responses by the week of May 21, is that it frees industry from the obligation to follow ESA’s geographic-return principle.

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said May 3 that the proposals could be for a rocket made almost entirely in India or China. Such a vehicle, he acknowledged, likely would never be financed by any ESA member state.

But a vehicle made principally in, say, France, Germany and Italy, with major components from the United States — with no concern for having to find contractors in other European nations to secure these nations’ support — could be feasible if it results in cost savings.

“Industry has been telling us for years that they cannot reduce the costs of the Ariane 5 rocket because of the constraints of our geographic-return principle,” Dordain said here during a meeting of the partners of the international space station. “So now we’re telling them: ‘Forget those constraints and show us what you can do.’” ESA Launcher Director Antonio Fabrizi, in a May 4 interview, said the agency expects to receive sufficient response to its bid request to select two teams to design the vehicle, each receiving one-year contracts valued at around 2 million euros ($2.6 million).

The teams will be selected in June and will be asked to submit initial proposals by the end of September, in time for ESA delegations to digest the results before a meeting of ESA government ministers in late November.

At that meeting, ESA governments will be asked to fund an upgrade to the current Ariane 5 rocket. They will also be asked to consider whether ESA should start work right now on an Ariane 5 successor vehicle.

France, which has long led most launcher-related work in Europe, has invested more than 200 million euros in proceeds from a special government bond into a next-generation vehicle, which in France is called Ariane 6.

As currently envisioned, Ariane 6 bears a strong resemblance to the rocket that resulted from ESA’s consultations with European satellite owners. The initial Ariane 6 work is for a modular vehicle capable of lifting satellites weighing between 3,000 and 8,000 kilograms into geostationary orbit, the destination of most telecommunications satellites.

Built to these specifications, the vehicle would replace both the current Ariane 5 and the medium-lift Russian Soyuz rocket that began operations in 2011 from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in South America.

Fabrizi said the survey of satellite owners found that rocket availability was high on the owners’ list of priorities. Because of the wait times inherent in a vehicle like Ariane 5 that launches two satellites at a time, the studies are focusing on a rocket that carries only one customer per launch.

A key requirement, Fabrizi said, is that, once built and demonstrated with ESA monies, the rocket will be able to be operated without the support payments that have helped Ariane 5 maintain financial equilibrium for nearly a decade.

“The design specifications clearly say the vehicle should be able to operate with non EGAS-like support payments,” Fabrizi said, referring to the European Guaranteed Access to Space program that is currently buttressing the accounts of the Arianespace launch consortium in the amount of more than 100 million euros per year.

Fabrizi agreed that the ESA survey returned results, in most areas, resemble the Ariane 6 designs.

French government and industry officials say the early Ariane 6 work has focused on operating and maintenance costs more than the performance goals that have dominated past launch-vehicle designs.

In pure performance terms, Ariane 6 would represent a step backward from Ariane 5, which is capable of lifting two satellites weighing some 9,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit.

The Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution project, featuring a new, re-startable upper stage, would further increase that performance to some 11,000 kilograms.

In Dordain’s thinking, the vehicle designs, which Fabrizi said are part of a program called the New European Launch Service, would create the optimal rocket first, without worrying who will pay for it. Once the design has been found, ESA and industry would seek the support of those governments whose industry is included among the proposed contractors.

“This is a bottom-up approach, which is a complete turnaround from our past practice,” Fabrizi said. “Of course, if the proposal includes a large amount of Indian or American or other non-European content, ESA would not be paying for that.”

 

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