Europe is a world leader in space services and plans to keep it that way. Recently, it’s low-cost competitor, SpaceX, succeeded in carrying out its first commercial launch. Facing a more and more competitive market, ESA and the CNES are working on building a low-cost launcher with its first flight expected in 2021. For the next Mardi de l’espace, tonight, 17 December, at the Café du Pont Neuf in Paris, two directors from the Launcher Directorate of the CNES will discuss the challenges of this new rocket.
Artist’s impression of Ariane 6
Source: CNES/DUCROS David 2013
A significant reduction in cost
Philippe Pascal, deputy director of Technology and Space Transport Systems at the CNES, makes the point that it’s not a matter of increasing the performance of its predecessor Ariane 5. “There will be innovations, but the main objective is to minimize cost.” The goal is to remain competitive in the face of new heavyweights on the market. The American SpaceX, but also China and India are becoming more powerful. Since the 1960s, Europe has had independent access to space. To buffer the fixed cost of construction, European launchers are also commercialized in the private sector by the company ArianeSpace. Hence the interest in remaining competitive. No aesthetic improvements, nor an increase in transport capacity, then. Ariane 6 will have to vie with the ultra-competitive prices of its rivals, like SpaceX’s Falcon 9.
To do so, the configuration chosen for the future European aerospace launcher will bet on a reorganization of production. Instead of fitting out the launcher with several engines of different sizes, Ariane 6 will be equipped with four identical, reasonably sized motors using solid propellant, and a reignitable, cryogenic upper stage. “Mass production of the same motor will allow us to reduce the costs by increasing the efficiency of production. It’s the same principle as in many industrial sectors,” explains Philippe Pascal. The goal is to reduce the launch cost by 30% compared to Ariane 5, or an objective of 70 million euros for Ariane 6.
In addition, the powerful Ariane 5 can put two satellites into orbit at the same time. “This great advantage in performance can turn out to be a real weakness when it is difficult to find a compatible pair,” remarks Marie-Anne Clair, deputy director of Launchers. This year two launches had to be postponed due to the lack of a co-passenger. Ariane 6’s target will be individual launches and, for this reason, will be much more adaptable to fluctuations in the satellite market.
SpaceX, the new easyJet of aerospace?
In the same way as the airline industry, are commercial space services facing the low-cost phenomenon? SpaceX could be the new easyJet of aerospace. The race to reduce production and launch costs has, thus, begun. The latest idea from the new arrival on the market: a reusable launcher. A remarkable video circulated last month in which we see one stage of a launcher propelled up to 250 meters, then directed back to its launch pad. “We always keep an eye on this sort of technological possibility,” Philippe Pascal comments. “The technology that will allow for the reuse of all or some launchers, won’t be viable for at least 20 years and we’re not convinced of its economic advantage.”
All the same, for lovers of space innovation, no need to feel let down. ESA and the CNES are also working on an upgrade of the current model of Ariane 5 ECA. Ariane 5 ME (Midlife Evolution) will be higher performing and more multipurpose.
For all the details, join us tonight, Tuesday 17 December at 19h30 at the Café du Pont Neuf for the next Mardi de l’espace of the CNES.
You can also follow the live tweet by MyScienceWork, partner for the event, along with the CNES and Bar des sciences, via the hashtag #CNESTweetup.