Ariane 6: Esa and the new rocket

New missiles for Europe
Competition for Nasa and Space X from Europe

After 4 billion euros in development costs and many delays, the new rocket from the European Space Agency Esa is scheduled to launch at the end of 2023. There are already 29 bookings for Ariane 6, 18 of them from Amazon.

Europe is currently lagging behind. At least what rockets and commercial space travel concerns. The workhorse “Ariane 5” has been in reliable use since 1996. But above all SpaceX has in recent years through an aggressive pricing policy and marketing strategy of its founder Elon Musk established in the commercial market. However, the European Space Agency Esa and the space company Arianespace (a subsidiary of Arianegroup) recognized the signs of the times early on and began developing a new rocket as early as 2014: the Ariane 6.

It was supposed to start two years ago. But the corona pandemic and various setbacks in development have delayed that. At a press conference in October, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher announced that the fourth quarter of 2023 was now being targeted. Then the new Ariane 6 will take off for the first time from the European spaceport of Kourou in South American French Guiana. A new, 170 hectare starting field was created there for this purpose. With the help of solar collectors, one would like to produce “green” hydrogen, which will serve as liquid fuel, from 2025 onwards. In addition, the new manufacturing facilities and launch pads will make it possible to “launch rockets every two weeks,” says Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA director for spacecraft carriers, in an interview with us. However, this does not mean that an “Ariane 6” will actually be on its way every two weeks. But with an “Ariane 5” there were still at least two months between them. The time and costs between starts have been significantly reduced. “Because two rockets are being prepared in parallel,” says Neuenschwander. In addition, they are driven horizontally to the ramp and only set up there instead of being slowly moved vertically the entire route from the production hall to the launch site.

And every cent and every second that can be saved means a competitive advantage in the rapidly growing business of commercial space travel: according to a recent report by the Market Analysts from “ReportLinker” The market for launch systems has already reached around 17 billion US dollars this year and will grow to almost 30 billion US dollars by 2027. And that’s where “Ariane 6” wants to survive because it can be used in a variety of ways.

The 62 meter high rocket relies on so-called boosters when it is launched: auxiliary rockets with solid fuel, which bear the name P120C. Depending on requirements, two or four of these can be deployed before firing the first stage Vulcain main engines. In this way, up to 21.6 tons can be transported into low earth orbit. This payload can be either one heavy satellite or multiple lighter systems. The big advantage of the Ariana 6 is hidden in the second stage. The newly developed Vinci engine can be fired not only once, but several times. At the beginning of October, the German Aerospace Center at the Lampoldshausen site in Baden-Wuerttemberg successfully tested this upper level.

An Ariane 6 is already in French Guiana. It is a model for testing the assembly, the data link, the feeder lines and the launch systems.

An Ariane 6 is already in French Guiana. It is a model for testing the assembly, the data link, the feeder lines and the launch systems.
Photo: dpa/Manuel Pedoussaut

Various orbits can be reached with the new engine – and several satellites with different requirement profiles can be transported. With just one launch of “Ariane 6”. In addition, “we have the opportunity to fly mini-satellites at low cost”. Behind it are small, light missiles weighing up to a few hundred kilograms, which are being developed and built by up-and-coming space companies in Europe or research institutes. For targeted projects or commercial services.

SpaceX now also offers this. And their “Falcon 9” can carry a payload of 22.8 tons into low earth orbit. That’s a little more than the “Ariane 6” is capable of. “But we are planning a further expansion stage for 2025,” says Neuenschwander. Unless the Esa Ministerial Council agrees on 22 and 23 November. With more powerful boosters and improved engines, the aim is to increase transport capacity by 20 percent and at least match SpaceX, if not even ahead of Elon Musk. In addition, the second stage will burn up completely in the earth’s atmosphere after use so that no further debris is left behind. It is a measure against space debris in Earth orbit, which is increasingly restricting space travel. Unlike SpaceX, however, this requires a little residual fuel in order to control the stage accordingly.

Although Esa cannot yet provide any precise information on the start-up costs, they want to be competitive – and point out that there are already 29 bookings. Around 75 percent of these are commercial. 18 of the orders alone come from Amazon. The US online department store is also an IT service provider that wants to enable a worldwide Internet connection via satellite with the so-called Kuiper project. Just like Elon Musk with his competing Starlink system.

In January 2021, however, he wrote about the start-up costs themselves Magazine “Politico”that they should be around US$77 million for an Ariane 6 with two boosters – which is well below the cost of launching an old “Ariane 5” at more than US$165 million. On paper, however, it would still be more expensive than SpaceX. Since you go for a flight of the “Falcon 9” meanwhile of $67 million out. However, nobody can say exactly where the actual costs of the Americans are. The price depends on the client. According to the US news channel CNBC, the American pays Luftwaffe, for example, 95 million US dollars for a start. This is explained with increased security requirements for a military order. On the other hand, the great success of the US company lies in the fact that the first stage of the “Falcon 9” is reusable – which significantly reduces costs.

And that’s something Ariane 6 can’t boast of. Only subsequent rocket systems should also be able to be used several times. “And then it’s not just about the first stage, but also about the second. Which makes it more difficult,” says Neuenschwander. But he confirms what Nasa boss Bill Nelson has already said about the criticism of the “moon rocket” that can only be used once Artemis program declared that reusability was not a value in itself. Only when you have to organize many starts in quick succession does it actually become crucial. “Basically, it’s about sustainability,” says Neuenschwander. And that includes the generation of “green” hydrogen, the avoidance of space debris and the possibility of bundling various missions or orders in one launch. Especially since the booster of the “Ariane 6” also serves as the first stage for the smaller European rocket “Vega C”, which can transport up to 2.3 tons into an orbit at a height of 700 kilometers. It already started successfully in July of this year. The interchangeability and multifunctionality of building blocks would also help reduce costs.

Especially since the development of rockets is never really finished. Esa is currently working on the Prometheus engine. Advanced 3D printing and digital control should significantly reduce manufacturing costs. According to the leading company Arianegroup, by a factor of 10 compared to the engines of an “Ariane 5” – which would mean unit prices of around one million euros. In addition, Prometheus should be reusable and built in two variants. One would be operated “classically” with liquid hydrogen and oxygen. But there is also the option of using liquid methane as a fuel. Temperatures of only around minus 162 degrees Celsius are required for this, while for hydrogen it is minus 253 degrees Celsius. That makes methane significantly cheaper. In addition, a tank could be more compact and therefore cheaper. However, these are concepts for the next decade. The main focus is currently on the “Ariane 6” and its successful maiden flight in the fourth quarter of 2023 – after its development cost almost four billion euros and 600 companies from all over Europe were involved.

But why bother? It’s not just about research or that NASA lunar program, in which ESA is involved. Telecommunications, navigation, weather observations, agriculture, changes in the seas, rivers and atmosphere or responses to catastrophes such as massive forest fires and floods. It all depends on systems in orbit and data from space. And the earth is changing. Not only due to climate change, but now also due to political upheavals such as Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. “Europe must work towards autonomous access to space. Ariane 6 is the key to this,” says Neuenschwander. Esa Director General Josef Aschbacher made a similar statement at the press conference in October after many collaborations with Russia have become obsolete since the war: An independent way into space “is crucial for Europe in the future”.

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