To enable independent access to space, the nations of Europe agreed on the Ariane programme back in 1973; it has since become one of the most successful European technology programmes. Germany has been an important partner from the outset. Launch vehicles remain a key element in European and German space strategy. The overall objective is to create a reliable, flexible and competitive European launch system. The Ariane programme has fulfilled this purpose for 35 years, providing in Ariane 5 a truly high-performance launch vehicle. The Vega small launcher and Russian Soyuz rockets, which like Ariane lift off from the Europe's spaceport in French Guiana, complete the range of launch vehicles.
Ariane 5 – the most reliable launcher in the world
Ariane 5 has the best track record of any launch vehicle in regular use around the world. In service since 1996, Ariane 5 is specifically designed for dual launches, and is capable of transporting over 10 tons of payload into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). The European launch vehicle currently holds a 50 percent market share of launch services for telecommunications satellites. Not only has it transported over 100 satellites and other craft into space, it has also been responsible for dispatching the European Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATVs) to the International Space Station (ISS). Ariane has also been selected for one of the most prestigious space missions of all time, launching the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that is being developed by NASA, ESA and CSA. The successor to the famous Hubble Space Telescope, JWST is scheduled for launch on an Ariane 5 in 2018.
The Ariane 6 programme – Europe's independent access to space secured for the future
At the ESA Ministerial Council Meeting in December 2014, the Member States agreed to develop a new launch vehicle, Ariane 6. This decision was a crucial milestone. To remain successful against international competition, the Ariane launch vehicle not only requires development in line with technical progress, it must also operate economically. The aspect of the European system' s economic efficiency has become increasingly important in recent years – as things stand, Ariane cannot cover its costs without state support.
Developing the current Ariane as a new Ariane 5ME version was seen as a way out of this predicament; the 'Midlife Evolution' programme proposed an increase in Ariane 5’s GTO payload capacity to 12 tons with unchanged launch costs. Intended as an interim measure before the development of Ariane 6, this plan has now been discontinued. Instead, the intention is to start directly with the development of Ariane 6.
Studies conducted prior to the Ministerial Council Meeting demonstrated that experience already acquired with the existing Ariane 5, combined with initial development work on Ariane 5 ME, means that many of the subsystems needed to create a sustainable launch vehicle, equipped to meet the challenges of tougher competition in global markets, are already available. By combining these elements with some additional subsystems, development of Ariane 6 could be completed within five years.
The new Ariane 6 will use a propellant combination of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen in both the main and upper stages. The new main stage will be based on the Ariane 5 design, streamlined to optimise cost effectiveness. The upper stage will use a modification of the system originally conceived for Ariane 5ME, using the re-ignitable 'Vinci' rocket engine.
The solid-fuel boosters will provide greater flexibility compared to Ariane 5. Depending on the configuration, with two or four boosters, Ariane 6 will be able to transport a five or 11-ton payload to GTO. The 70-metre rocket's maiden flight is planned for 2020. It will be built by Airbus Safran Launchers, a joint venture between the companies Airbus Defence and Space and the French engine manufacturer Safran.