PARIS — The head of the European Space Agency () is urging ESA’s 20 member governments to begin investing in a next-generation Ariane rocket immediately, with or without an accompanying program to upgrade the current Ariane 5 vehicle.
Stepping into an argument that has put France and Germany at odds and threatens a planned November meeting of ESA governments to decide the agency’s future direction, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said Europe’s Ariane rocket cannot remain competitive without an overhaul.
“Do we have to decide on a new-generation launcher now?” Dordain asked, referring to the biggest debate about European space policy in 20 years. “I say yes. I strongly believe we have to decide, as quickly as possible, to develop a new-generation launcher to be competitive in the market as it is forecast, and with the competitors.”
Dordain made his comments Sept. 11 at a press briefing in Berlin during Germany’s ILA air show.
France and Germany, ESA’s two biggest contributors, have been at loggerheads over this issue for well over a year. The French space agency, CNES, quietly backed by Europe’slaunch consortium, has argued that the current Ariane 5 heavy-lift vehicle has only a fragile hold on its current 50 percent commercial market share.
Just as important, according to the French reasoning, is that the entire Ariane 5 system, including its ground infrastructure, is expensive to operate and likely to remain so.
Because money is short in Europe, it would be preferable to move immediately to a next-generation vehicle that would carry payloads ranging from 2,500 kilograms to 6,000 kilograms — with an extension to 8,000 kilograms — into geostationary transfer orbit, one at a time.
This modular vehicle ultimately would replace not only today’s Ariane 5 but also the Russian Soyuz rocket that is now operating from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana.
Set against this reasoning are industrial policy issues raised by the German space agency, DLR, and by Astrium, which is Ariane 5’s prime contractor. They say Europe needs to complete development of an upgraded Ariane 5 — at a cost of about 1.4 billion euros ($1.8 billion) — before embarking on a decade-long development of an Ariane 6 whose cost and industrial work-share distribution are unknown.
DLR and its chairman, Johann-Dietrich Woerner, further argue that the upgraded Ariane, called Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (ME), will carry 20 percent more payload than the current Ariane 5 and holds out the promise that governments will no longer need to pay 120 million euros per year in Ariane support costs once Ariane 5 ME is operational.
Astrium has made promises to this effect, but they are subject to conditions that may or may not be acceptable to ESA governments.
Woerner has suggested that given the synergies between Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6, both vehicles could be developed at a cost that is not much higher than the cost of developing Ariane 6 on its own.
Dordain has left the door open for this, saying that whatever is decided by ESA governments in November, a two- or three-year design phase for Ariane 6 will precede actual metal-cutting, and Ariane 5 will be operated in tandem with its successor for two years or so after the latter is operational.
“Even if we move fast, we won’t be flying [the new rocket] until 2021,” Dordain said. “So Ariane 5 will be in operation at least until 2023.”
What is perhaps more interesting than the comparison of costs is the very different reasoning used by Dordain and Woerner to advance their arguments. They go to the heart of the debate about what a space agency’s mission should be.
Here is Dordain in his ILA Berlin briefing: “The first criterion [in evaluating a new vehicle’s development] is the market. We are not making launchers just to make a launcher, but to fulfill the requirements of a market.
“There is a government market and a commercial market, with the latter basically for telecommunications. As for the government market today, it is a fact that governments are using Soyuz and Vega [Europe’s new small-satellite launcher] more than Ariane.
“Of all the ESA missions identified for the coming years, 14 will be using Soyuz or Rockot [a Russian rocket commercialized by a German-Russian joint venture]. For Ariane 5, it’s just three, and that’s it.
“On the commercial side, the market is divided into satellites weighing 5,000 to 6,000 kilograms, and satellites weighing around 3,000 kilograms. The competition is very clear: On the 6,000-kilogram end it is [Russia’s] Proton. On the 3,000-kilogram end it is [Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s] Falcon 9.
“[the Luxembourg-based commercial satellite fleet operator] is by far a bigger customer of Ariane 5 than all European governments together. Not listening to them would be a mistake.
“Reliability is a second criterion. Today, Ariane 5 is the best. We have to maintain the industrial capabilities [that made it a success]. What is the best decision to take? There is a debate.”
DLR’s Woerner made the case for Ariane 5 ME during an Aug. 21 interview in which he brandished multiple figures from a recently completed analysis by a French-German team: “We invest in space activities not just to bring satellites and spacecraft into orbit, but to develop technologies and have an industry working in the field.
“We are not producing launchers for the market. We are producing launchers to provide European access to space. I think the market is an interesting point, but it’s not the overall governing point.
“If you ask the market, you get different answers. … I heard somebody say that satellites will be getting lighter, that a launcher carrying a single satellite weighing 3,000 or 4,000 kilograms will be enough, and that this should be the only solution for us.
“I heard another say that launching just one satellite at a time [Ariane 5 typically carries two telecommunications satellites] is about 30 percent more expensive, per kilogram, than a double launch. I have also heard from satellite operators that there will be an increase in the weight of satellites, but that operators will only order these satellites if there are at least two rockets to launch them. But Proton is also moving forward, trying out double launches.
“We should not only depend on what operators are saying. We should consider it, but the main aspect is European access to space and moving away, as fast as possible, from the need to provide annual support to [Ariane 5] exploitation support — without leaving additional debris in orbit.
“I am open to all arguments, and I agree that the final point — what should Europe do? — is a very delicate question.”