By Robert Wall
The European Space Agency on Wednesday kicked off development of Europe's newest space rocket with the award of a EUR2.4 billion ($2.67 billion) contract to Airbus Group SE and Safran SA joint venture.
The Ariane 6, as the new large rocket is called, is intended to make Europe's launcher more competitive in the face of growing international competition including from commercial operators such as entrepreneur Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technology Corp., called SpaceX.
The total development bill for the Ariane 6, which is due to fly for the first time in five years, is poised to reach EUR3 billion, including around EUR400 million industry is kicking into the program. To gain efficiencies, Airbus and Safran have joined forces and will take a bigger role in managing the program.
The European Space Agency on Wednesday also said it was spending EUR600 million for the rocket's launch base at the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, and EUR395 million for the Vega C, a smaller rocket. The motor being developed for the Vega C will be used also as boosters on the larger Ariane 6 to keep costs down.
"These contracts will allow the development of a family of European launchers, highly competitive in the world market and ensuring autonomous access to space at fully competitive prices for ESA's Member States," said the European agency's Director General Jan Woerner.
One of the challenges for industry will be to design a reliable launcher. A spate of rocket launch failures have disrupted satellite operators and other missions. SpaceX's Falcon 9 in June suffered a catastrophic failure, a month after a Russia's Proton rocket accident that has delayed subsequent launches. Orbital Sciences Corp. suffered an Antares rocket failure in October, with a return to flight forecast for early next year.
The Ariane 6 is due to replace the Ariane 5, which has had 66 successful launches in sequence. "We are going to use this experience for the future," said Alain Charmeau, head of Airbus Safran Launchers, which will manage the program.
Many of the rocket's crucial elements have already been developed and are being reused, including key engine technologies, which Mr. Charmeau said reduces risk. It also allows design teams in the next year to concentrate on figuring out how to build the rocket most efficiently, while avoiding industrial duplication that drove up costs on the earlier model Ariane 5, he said.
European politicians in December approved development of the Ariane 6, though they will meet again in 2016 to sign off on initial design work and to check that industry can deliver on price pledges. The development contract includes a firm commitment to spend EUR680 million to see work on the Ariane 6 through to its preliminary design review in mid-2016, the Airbus Safran Launchers joint venture said.
European industry has promised an Ariane 6 launch will cost between EUR70 million and EUR90 million.
Two versions of Ariane 6 are being developed that will use either two or four solid-fuel boosters depending on the missions. The rocket should be able to loft a 10.5 metric ton satellite into a geosynchronous transfer orbit, from which it can reach a position to be stationary over a spot on Earth.
Airbus Safran Launchers expects to gradually build up its rate of missions, Mr. Charmeau said, with 12 launches planned for 2023.
The Vega C is due to fly for the first time in 2018.
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