In 1973, the European states decided to implement the Ariane programme - one of the most successful European technology programmes - to enable Europe to have independent access to space. Germany has been an important partner from the start. Space transport continues to play a key role today in both European and German space strategy. The ultimate goal has been to develop a reliable, flexible, competitive European launch system. The Ariane programme has been fulfilling this role for 35 years and today offers a high-performance launch vehicle in the form of Ariane 5. The Vega small launcher and the Russian Soyuz rocket, which, like Ariane, are launched from Europe's spaceport in French Guiana, complement this solution.
Ariane 5 – the most reliable launch system in the world
Ariane 5 has now completed 57 launches without problems and has the best track record in the world of any regularly used launch system. In use since 1996, Ariane 5 is specially designed to lift payloads with a mass of up to 10 tons into Earth orbit in dual launches. Today, the European launch system has a 50 percent market share in the sector for telecommunications satellite launch services. Not only has it delivered over 100 satellites and probes into space, it also carries the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) space freighter to the International Space Station. In addition, the Ariane is slated for one of the most prestigious space missions of all time - launching the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope. This successor to the famous Hubble Space Telescope is due to be launched on a European Ariane 5 in 2018.
Ariane 5 ME (Midlife Evolution) for long-term competitiveness
To enable the Ariane launch system to remain successful against international competition over the long term, it has to be technically adapted at regular intervals. The aim of the current Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution programme being run by the European Space Agency (ESA) is to increase the payload capacity of Ariane 5 to 12 tons. Using a new Vinci upper stage engine tested by DLR in Lampoldshausen and a higher fuel load in the upper stage, the Ariane 5 is expected to have a higher performance level and greater mission flexibility. Increasing the performance by 20 percent enables the dual launch principle to be maintained even as the launch weight of the satellites keeps increasing. Meanwhile the production costs for the launcher remain constant. Hence, there is a prospect of additional revenues that increase in proportion with the rocket’s payload capacity. This should mean that there will no longer be any need for the support thus far required from the European states.
Besides these market- and economy-oriented aspects, the new configuration allows the Ariane 5 to make important progress towards a more environment-friendly way to access space; the Ariane 5 ME does away entirely with toxic hydrazine-based propellants, and prevents space debris formation through targeted disposal of the upper stage from orbit once it has successfully completed its mission.
Prospects for Ariane 6 – single launch for satellites
The operating principle of the Ariane 5 is focused on launching satellites in pairs. However, although commercially interesting, this dual launch concept is logistically difficult as it requires the coordination of two customers. What is needed is a European launch system that can pay for itself even when used for a single launch. The cost of launch services on the global market is currently too low to enable launchers built in accordance with the principles used to date and the high quality standards in Europe to be operated cost-effectively in single launch mode.
The Ariane 6 programme should make a breakthrough here. The project, which is in a preparatory phase following a decision at the ESA Ministerial Council Meeting in 2012, is to investigate whether a newly developed launch system with solid propellant first and second stages and a high-performance upper stage using cryogenic propellants (liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen) has the potential to operate cost-effectively in the global market. Meanwhile, numerous studies have shown that the launch costs per rocket will need to be reduced by a factor of two compared to those of today to enable the single launch process to be commercially successful – a very ambitious development target.
A launcher configuration is being investigated that employs similar, solid propellant rocket motors in the lower stages and builds on the technology from the Ariane 5 ME in the upper stage. This should minimise both the development and manufacturing costs. The objective of the current investigation is to see if the goals of the Ariane 6 project can be met and, if so, how the European space industry needs to be adapted.
The decisions made at the ESA Ministerial Council Conference in Luxembourg in December 2014 will mark an important milestone for the future of European space transportation. To secure the European market position into the next decade, it is critical that funds are approved at the conference for completing the development of the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution. At the same time, preparations must continue for the development of the next generation of launcher – Ariane 6 – to consolidate the concept of a self-supporting, competitive launch system. The Ariane 6 decision process needs sufficient time and space to consider all the technical, commercial and space policy realities and boundary conditions. If it gets this, Ariane 6 could end up being a sustainable product worthy of as much trust as Ariane 5 is today.