Europe’s newest rocket tests the bloc’s space ambitions

On July 9, Anne-Sophie Chassagnou will judge whether the skies are clear enough for Europe to launch its first new rocket in almost 30 years.

At just 26 years old, the lead weather forecaster for Ariane 6’s maiden flight is having a major impact on the continent’s space ambitions. Last year, just minutes before ignition, France’s CNES space agency meteorologist canceled the first attempt to launch Europe’s €1.6 billion mission to explore Jupiter’s icy moons.

“My body was shaking when I had to press the red button,” she said from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana, between Brazil and Suriname, but if conditions aren’t right for Ariane 6, she won’t hesitate to do it again. “I don’t want to, but if I have to, I will,” she said.

This time, much more is at stake than a deep space mission. The first flight of the Ariane 6 rocket will test whether Europe can rebuild credibility in the commercial launch market once dominated by Ariane 5 and now by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Europe is also counting on Ariane 6 to restore its independent access to space – an increasingly contested area where global superpowers are fighting for economic and strategic supremacy. In the past year, the bloc has had to rely on SpaceX to launch some of its most sensitive satellites.

Diagrams showing some of the components of the Ariane 6 rocket and comparing it to the Ariane 5 and SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets

It’s an uncomfortable position. In the 1970s, the United States tried to prevent some European satellites from competing commercially in exchange for providing launch services. “The Ariane program was triggered by the lack of commercial access to space,” said Eric Dalbiès, chairman of ArianeGroup, the French-owned joint venture that produces Europe’s Ariane rockets. “It revived the need for Europe to have sovereign access.”

Now Europe is again without its own launch capability after Ariane 5 was retired last July. Technological challenges, pandemic shutdowns and skill shortages caused a costly four-year delay for Ariane 6. Cooperation with Russia ended after its invasion of Ukraine, and problems with Italy’s new intermediate Vega-C launcher have left that rocket fixed since 2022.

Josef Aschbacher, head of the European Space Agency, has described the situation as a “crisis” for Europe. The EU’s new space strategy for security and defense made restoring autonomous access to space a priority.

At the Guiana Space Center, located near the coastal city of Kourou, teams from ESA, CNES and ArianeGroup have been working hard to achieve this goal.

In April, the rocket core was transferred to the launch pad and two boosters carrying 140 tons of solid propellant were attached. On June 20, Ariane 6 was refueled and jettisoned in its final test. Sixteen satellites and experiments are loaded into the rocket.

Almost 50 percent of missiles fail on their first flight, according to Aschbacher, but officials in Kourou hope repeated tests and trials have mitigated the risks. The focus is “getting everything right the first time,” says Lucia Linares, ESA’s chief strategy officer.

Map showing the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana

Even if the first flight fails, Europe’s strategic needs will keep the program alive. Less certain is whether the missile can compete in a market that has changed radically since Europe opted in 2014 to build a conventional launcher.

SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 has driven down prices, making it the clear leader for low-cost, reliable launches. This week the EU’s weather satellite operator chose to launch its next spacecraft on SpaceX, rather than wait for Ariane 6. SpaceX expects Starship, the world’s most powerful rocket that completed its fourth test flight this month, to also be reusable – unlike Ariane 6.

Europe’s decision not to invest in a reusable missile is widely seen as a mistake. Germany had been reluctant to pay for a new rocket program, according to former ESA chief Jan Wörner. “The German idea was to continue with Ariane 5, but to have a new upper stage. This was the cheap solution,” he said.

But France, which has long dominated the European launcher industry, wanted to preserve jobs and rocket manufacturing capabilities with a new program.

A part of a rocket is moved into position
Some experts defend Europe’s decision to reject reusability in favor of an expendable launcher with a highly flexible upper stage that can take satellites to different orbits in a single mission. © S Martin/Ariane

A compromise was reached. ArianeGroup, a merger of the Franco-German rocket businesses of Airbus and Safran, promised to design an expendable launcher that was at least 50 percent cheaper to operate than Ariane 5, would fly in five years and not required no subsidies, Wörner said. . The program has failed to live up to all those charges.

Last fall, ESA member states agreed to inject another €1 billion, on top of the estimated €4 billion development cost, to enable Ariane 6 to compete with SpaceX.

Some experts defend Europe’s decision to reject reusability in favor of an expendable launcher with a highly flexible upper stage that can take satellites to different orbits in a single mission. A reusable rocket would have required significant and sustained demand that was not available, they say.

“It was the right decision,” Linares said. “It is true that if you reuse the first stage . . . normally you lower the cost. But it depends on how many times you are able to launch.”

However, even for a conventional rocket, demand matters, and Ariane 6 enters a tougher commercial market than its predecessor.

Over the next decade, the US will launch roughly three times as many satellites as Europe for governments, universities and other institutions, and almost 10 times as many commercial spacecraft, according to Novaspace analysts. The Pentagon, NASA and Musk’s Starlink broadband satellite service will likely return to SpaceX before Ariane.

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Meanwhile, a number of initiatives around the world are eyeing the booming market for satellite services from low Earth orbit.

“Ariane previously launched two non-institutional satellites for every institutional satellite. But today new launchers are catching up to this demand,” said Pierre Lionnet, head of research at trade body ASD-Eurospace.

Novaspace estimates that about 2,800 satellites will be launched annually by 2033. Most of this business will be covered by domestic launchers, but Linares believes that much will still be open to competition – and Ariane’s flexibility will be an advantage.

Ariane 6 is already booked for 30 launches, including 18 for the upcoming Amazon Project Kuiper broadband constellation. Customers want a variety of launch providers beyond SpaceX, Linares said.

But even those involved in the European program acknowledge that the system that produced Ariane 6 — which awards supply contracts by nationality rather than competition — will have to change. This year ESA has launched a competition for the development of small commercial launchers, from which it will purchase services.

The move was an “electroshock” to the corporate and political complacency that had stymied Ariane 6, one insider said.

However, the high price of a heavy missile means that Europe cannot avoid cooperation and compromise, which could further hinder competition.

“I am not convinced that in Europe we will be able to offer launch services at prices as low as SpaceX,” said Carine Leveau, head of space transportation systems at CNES. “But we can be more competitive than we are today and more than we will be with Ariane 6.”

For now, however, the priority is securing Europe’s access to space. “It is very important that this inaugural flight is a success,” she added. “That will put everyone at ease.”

Illustration by Ian Bott

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