This article originally appeared in the July 30, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
In 2014, when the European Space Agency settled on a six-year roadmap for the development of two next-generation rockets — Ariane 6 and Vega C — Europe’s main launch service provider Arianespace was still in the driver’s seat.
International Launch Services was recovering from another Proton failure. Sea Launch was in drydock. SpaceX had just begun to crack the commercial market.
The competitive landscape was shifting but Arianespace still sat firmly on top with its Ariane 5, Soyuz and Vega rockets.
Responding to the threat SpaceX’s lowpriced Falcon 9 posed to Europe’s launch sector dominance, ESA and its industrial partners ArianeGroup and Avio made cost control a defining requirement of Europe’s future launch vehicles.
In the intervening four years, SpaceX has cemented its presence. Falcon 9 has performed more than 55 launches for civil, military and commercial customers to date, including nearly a dozen missions where the rocket’s nine-engine first stage made a second trip to space.
In 2017 SpaceX won six internationally competed commercial launch contracts, closing in on Arianespace, which won nine, according to Bryce Space and Technology data.
Arianespace’s competitive landscape isn’t getting any easier. In the U.S., Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance are developing Ariane 6 competitors, Russia is building Angara, India is gaining traction with GSLV, Japan is building the H3 and China is aiming its Long March family at markets further beyond its borders.
In the midst of these changes, ESA is pushing European industry to continue innovating and finding efficiencies even after Vega C’s introduction in 2019 and Ariane 6’s debut in 2020.
“I am convinced personally that it must be a permanent endeavor of industry to think about cost reduction leading to competitiveness increases,” Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of Space Transportation, said in an interview.
Neuenschwander intends to bring multiple proposals to ESA’s next ministerial council, scheduled for the end of 2019, to reinforce the cost-reduction mindset.
One of Neuenschwander’s proposals will relate to making the Ariane 6 and Vega C upper stages more cost competitive. Another, he said, is about reusability.
“We are looking at cost reduction in all dimensions … cost reduction through reusability is also a focus area for me to be brought to the next ministerial,” he said.
Europe aims to sell Ariane 6 rockets for about half of the $178 million Bryce Space and Technology says Arianespace charges for Ariane 5 missions.
It expects to achieve these savings by aggressively reducing production costs among the network of industrial suppliers that build the launch vehicle. For starters, Europe will produce a common solid rocket booster — the P120 — for Vega C’s first stage and Ariane 6’s strap-on boosters, lowering costs through greater production volume.
ArianeGroup is being judicious in its insertion of new technology. Ariane 6 will use an upgraded version of Ariane 5’s Vulcain 2 main engine and a Vinci upper-stage engine more than 15 years in development. Two Ariane 6 variants — the Ariane 62 with two strap-on boosters and the more powerful Ariane 64 with four strap-ons — will give the new workhorse a wider performance envelope than the current Ariane 5.
Ariane 6 can carry 10,000 to nearly 22,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit (LEO) and 5,000 to 11,500 kilograms to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).
Ariane 5 can carry 20,000 kilograms to LEO and 11,115 kilograms to GTO.
ArianeGroup, the prime contractor for Ariane 6, has described the next-generation rocket as “basically an industrialization of Ariane 5.”
In a telling statement, Arianespace CEO Stéphane Isräel described the looming introduction of Vega C and Ariane 6 as a starting, not an ending.
“We are at the beginning of a new journey,” Isräel said June 27 during a press briefing at ConnecTechAsia in Singapore. “This journey is a journey where the European launcher sector is going to innovate more and quicker.”
That sentiment isn’t limited to Isräel and other officials responsible for keeping European launchers competitive for the long haul.
“The Ariane 6 is not going to come out as a final product, not in the sense that it won’t be mature or reliable, but there is nothing earth-shattering in it,” said Michele Franci, the former chief technology officer of Inmarsat who left last year to do independent consulting for the satellite and launch industries. “There are other developments ongoing in parallel in Europe, so by the time Ariane 6 is operational, these developments should become mature and it will be time to introduce them.”
Franci, who had direct responsibility for launch contracts at Inmarsat and had previous careers at SES and Arianespace, said what’s going on now is for “the first time ever a conscious effort to design to cost and design to efficiency.”
“But it’s not done,” he adds.
Alain Charmeau, CEO of ArianeGroup, said the company has three major projects underway for future evolutions of the Ariane 6.
“One is Prometheus, a new LOX-methane engine that is definitely low cost — 10 times less costly to produce than the current Vulcain 2 engine — with potential reusability,” he said. “The second is to work on technologies for reusability of the main stage of Ariane 6, and the third one is to work on an upgrade of the upper stage by using carbon-fiber structures instead of metallic structures as is the case today.”
Each of those projects is already under development in parallel with Ariane 6. ESA awarded ArianeGroup 75 million euros ($85 million) in December to begin production of the first two Prometheus engines. Charmeau said ArianeGroup is working with German partner MT Aerospace on cryogenic tanks and on the structure of the carbon-fiber upper stage. Depending on ESA backing, the improved upper stage could add one metric ton to Ariane 6’s lift performance between 2025 and 2030, according to Charmeau.
Regarding the improved upper stage, Arianespace has “the ambition to fly it on Ariane 6 as quick as possible,” Isräel said.
“We could target to have an evolution of Ariane 6 in 2025,” he said. “It is not decided yet, but it is something we could achieve and we could have here the building blocks of these evolutions.”
Where reusability will fit in is to be determined.
The SpaceX effect
ONERA, a aerospace-focused French defense research group similar to the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the U.S., is working with the French space agency CNES and ArianeGroup to figure out how reusability can be achieved in Europe.
“At the beginning the question with reusability was is it feasible?” recalled Gérard Ordonneau, the director of launch programs ONERA’s space division. “SpaceX showed that it is feasible to land a stage and reuse it.”
Ordonneau said ONERA is working with CNES on Callisto, a small rocket designed to practice Falcon 9-style vertical recovery — what in Europe is called a “toss back” — that “could lead to an evolution of Ariane 6.”
“Ariane 6 has a design to answer the question of cost reduction without reusability because the development of reusability needs some time,” he said.
Callisto is expected to launch in 2020, but will be too small to fly the reusable Prometheus engine that comes out the same year.
ONERA doesn’t produce components, but identifies ways to improve engine design. Ordonneau said ONERA has an unpaid cooperation pact with ArianeGroup to help them increase confidence in the performance margins of Prometheus and any variants of the engine.
The burning question of reusability
Europe has studied reusable rockets for decades, including “fly-back” versions of the Ariane 5 with winged boosters for runway landings, but never concluded it was worthwhile to implement. The success of SpaceX has supplied the impetus to study reusability with renewed vigor.
“There is an acceleration of innovation,” said Ordonneau. “We need to work on reusability in different ways — in toss-back and in fly-back. There are other configurations studied by CNES with the help of ONERA and [the German space agency] DLR. The design of this configuration needs to be evaluated in terms of cost, number of reuse and so on.”
Central to the reusability debate is whether any rocket can launch at a high enough rate to justify the investment. European officials have bemoaned the willingness of some ESA members, like Luxembourg with GovSat-1, to launch their satellites overseas on non-European rockets.
Opinions differ on just how critical reusability will be for Ariane rockets. Teal Group analyst Marco Caceres’ view is the one keeping European workers and policymakers up at night.
“To simply say going for reusability doesn’t make any sense is fine, but then you are going to be eliminated from this industry in a few years,” Caceres said.
SpaceX’s launch costs, already undercutting the entire industry, will have room to drop even lower as the company routinizes reuse of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, Caceres said.
“Traditionally, launch companies, particularly those run by governments or that have stock holders concerned about their price… are more conservative,” he said. “They play defense … this is now a different game, and it’s one they don’t know how to play very well yet. If they don’t play it, then they are going to lose out.”
Franci dismissed that logic. “I think Ariane 6 vehicle is more competitive than it looks,” he said. Franci declined to state Ariane 6 prices quoted to him while at Inmarsat, but said the difference between those and the Ariane 5 are substantial.
“The improvements are really there. They are important and they are material. If you look at the Ariane 5 and the Ariane 6, the product competitiveness in pricing terms is very significant,” he said.
Franci admitted SpaceX’s success has forced ArianeGroup’s sales and marketing division Arianespace to sell Ariane 5 at “very aggressive prices” — so much so that current prices are already eroding the anticipated 50 percent price drop with Ariane 6, he said. The rocket will still open a new chapter for Europe as an expendable vehicle, but that’s no excuse for resting on laurels, he warned.
“Reusability may or may not be an effective idea,” he said. “But it should be looked at in earnest.”