The 21st century has seen new nations—China, India and Japan—enter the launch services market and private firms emerge such as Space X and Blue Origin in the United States, heralding a new era of ‘low-cost’ launch. To maintain its independent space launch capability and meet its requirements for launching satellites into low and medium Earth orbit, the European Space Agency (ESA) decided at its Ministerial Conference in Luxembourg on 2 December 2014 to initiate the Ariane 6 programme. The technical choices made for this new launcher were based on concept analyses conducted jointly by CNES, ESA and industry manufacturers over a period of 2 years.
From an economic perspective, the ambitious goal is to halve the cost per kilogram into orbit with respect to Ariane 5. To achieve this, the Ariane 6 programme is counting on:
- capitalizing on tried-and-tested technologies
- introducing technological innovations like additive manufacturing (AM) of the Vulcain 2.1 engine’s gas generator and friction-stir-welding to fabricate the launcher’s propellant tanks
- establishing a new process of governance, notably by giving a greater role to industry in the design and fabrication phase of the launcher
Two launcher variants
To give launch operator Arianespace more flexibility to meet its commercial and institutional customers’ needs, there will be two variants of Ariane 6: Ariane 62 and Ariane 64. Ariane 62 will have 2 solid-rocket boosters and is therefore an alternative to Soyuz for placing scientific and Earth-observing satellites into low and medium Earth orbits, while also offering the capacity to commercial clients to loft a single satellite payload of up to 4.5 tonnes into geostationary orbit.
Ariane 64 will have 4 solid-rocket boosters and the capacity to loft 11.5 tonnes into geostationary orbit and up to 20 tonnes into low and medium Earth orbits. It will thus provide continuity serving Ariane 5’s telecommunications satellite launch market. Ariane 6’s new Vinci reignitable upper-stage engine will give Arianespace extra flexibility to meet its customers’ increasingly diverse requests for reachable orbits and missions like satellite constellations. Vinci will also comply with the French Space Operations Act (FSOA) adopted in 2008, through its ability to be de-orbited at the end of its mission.
The Ariane 6 programme’s schedule is ambitious, with a maiden launch from the Guiana Space Centre targeted in 2020, ramping up to a rate of 11 launches a year by 2023. Ariane 5 will continue to operate during the transitional phase planned to last through to 2022.