BREMEN, Germany — Ariane 5 is one of the world’s most reliable launcher but its makers aren’t resting on their laurels. Following the 2015 creation of Airbus Safran Launchers, a joint venture between the two main contributors to the European rocket program, the company renamed itself to ArianeGroup and embarked on a journey through the quickly changing space industry landscape.
ArianeGroup’s CFO Pierre Godart told SpaceNews at Space Tech Expo Europe here that lean management, as well as increased vertical integration, is the main drivers behind improving efficiency and reducing cost. With the new Ariane 6 slated to enter service in 2020, ArianeGroup promises to cut per-kilogram launch cost by 40 to 50 percent compared to Ariane 5.
Godart said that while Ariane 6 reflects changes in the current satellite market and was specifically designed to respond to the advent of small satellite mega-constellations, the company keeps their mind open about a possible future dedicated small satellite micro-launcher and would consider exploring rocket stage reusability once persuaded about a sound business case.
Q. The pressure for lower prices is one of the major driving forces in the launcher market. With Ariane 6, ArianeGroup promises to achieve a 40 to 50 percent price reduction compared to the current workhorse Ariane 5. How do you achieve that?
A. With the creation of ArianeGroup, we have become a much leaner organization. We have also done a lot of vertical integration within the industry. We have completely revisited the supply chain for Ariane 6 and we are trying to always choose the best-in-class companies to work with. We have simplified and standardized the product using new technologies such as 3D printing. Ariane 5 was designed in the 1980s and a lot of technological innovation has happened since.
What has been quite new to us is the use of collaborative engineering. We have integrated project teams with our industry partners, showing a great level of transparency — not only within the ArianeGroup companies but also with our supply chain. It’s a powerful tool. We are open and transparent about our ideas and challenges and our suppliers are open about theirs. This way we can optimize the product down the road. Sometimes improvements achieved in one area can translate into other areas as well.
From Day One, the launcher is designed with production in mind. In the past, we would develop the launcher, then we would launch it and then we would go into the production. Here we did it the other way round. We had production people involved in the process from Day One to secure not only that the design will work — which is obviously a must — but also for it to be a product, which is easy to produce, which is not too complex. That enables you to have more efficient production and then you save cost.
The final point is that we expect to increase cadences to 11 launchers produced per year, which will also have a positive effect on cost.
Q. You expect to start operating Ariane 6 in 2020. What reaction have you seen in the market so far?
A. I can confirm that we are well on track with the development of Ariane 6. We have passed external and internal reviews and we are now preparing for positioning Ariane 6 in the market.
Ariane 6 was conceived together with our customers. We have asked the customers what type of product they would like to see. We had discussions with them. This is not a product coming from just thinking in the engineering department. From Day One, we had the customers involved in the design and definition of this launcher.
The response to Ariane 6 in the market is very positive. The customers tell us that this is the right product. We have a highly flexible product and we are much cheaper than on Ariane 5, which is one of the reasons why we have gone in that direction. The acceptance from the market is really good.
On the other hand, we are not giving up on Ariane 5. It’s the most reliable launcher in the market with 81 successful consecutive launches. We continue investing in Ariane 5. We have increased the payload to 10 tons to geostationary transfer orbit and we plan to keep operating it in parallel with Ariane 6.
Q. One of the big trends discussed in the launcher market is the increasing demand for small satellite launches and the availability of launch services for small satellite operators. Wow is ArianeGroup responding to this trend?
A. One advantage of Ariane 6 is that you can launch constellations of small satellites with a versatile upper stage, which you can reignite several times with the Vinci engine. In one batch with one launch you can launch many satellites. We can launch more then 50 satellites in one go, which is not feasible with Ariane 5. This is convenient for large constellations because you can start them with only a few launches.
Also, ridesharing is something very doable with Ariane 6. Even if someone is launching just one small satellite they can share the launcher with others and launch or Ariane 6.
Q. What is your take on small satellite launchers? Do you think there is a need and room for them? Small satellite operators frequently complain about the problems they experience launching their satellites – the delays, the high prices.
A. Obviously, there is an interest from customers in micro-launchers but the question is whether there is a price, which would be compatible with what the customers expect but also feasible for the micro-launcher operators. We would obviously do that if we believed that there is a market
For the time being we are working on studies. There has been no final decision yet. It is a debate among the industrial players, whether the market is there. The operators are saying that they are interested but that’s not enough. The question is what would be the launch price, what would be the cost of the development, what would be the potential margin that you can realize. There must be, at the end of the day, a business case. In our opinion, it is maybe too early. None of the big constellations has taken off yet. It’s a bit too early to properly assess how big is the market and what can be done through ridesharing on bigger launchers. Is the market for micro-launchers big enough? Are the potential customers ready to pay the right price for such a service?
We are open to everything that is happening in the market. We are studying everything very carefully but we only move once we are convinced that there is a business case
For the time being, we are focusing on Ariane 6. We believe that the flexibility of Ariane 6 does address the needs of the small satellite market.
Q. With the development of the Prometheus engine in cooperation with the European Space Agency, ArianeGroup is starting to explore reusability. Do you foresee moving further in this direction in the future?
A. Rocket stage reusability is a topic we are looking into on a study basis. Similarly to the micro-launchers, we are trying to see whether there is really a business case for reusability. What are the advantages and the drawbacks of reusability?
If you want a reusable launcher, you lose quite a lot of payload due to the fact that you need to bring your stage back down to land without crashing. It costs quite a lot of payload, which means that you can’t go with too-heavy passengers and you cannot go everywhere. Then you have to refurbish the landed stage. The costs of the refurbishment are likewise significant. It is not very cheap in our view because you don’t want to impair reliability. You want to have a reusable launcher but with a good reliability so you need to take that into consideration.
Also your customers would expect a discount if they fly on a reused rocket because otherwise they would choose to fly on a new rocket. So on one side you lose payload at the beginning, you have high refurbishment cost and then on the sales side you need to make a discount to your customer.
At the end of the day, once you have made the mathematics of all of this, there still must be a clear business case. As of today, this is not yet clear.
Also, as I said earlier, we aim to have cadences of 11 a year with Ariane 6. If you reuse 10 times, then you need to produce one rocket a year and I am not sure whether the industrial base can survive on manufacturing one or two launchers a year.
We have signed a contract with ESA to develop a reusable first-stage engine called Prometheus, which will be 10 times cheaper than the current Vulcain engine. We are preparing for the potential reusable future but we want to see a clear business case behind it.