On Christmas Eve 1979, a new rocket blasted off from French Guiana. The preceding few days had seen two aborted launch attempts, which had raised the pressure on the team behind the rocket’s development.
An entire continent was watching: Ariane 1 could finally provide Europe with its own access to space. Eventually, at the third and final attempt, the rocket launched successfully. It was carrying a capsule weighing 1,645 kg, the heaviest payload ever launched into space by Europe at that time.
Exactly 35 years later, on Christmas Eve evening 2014, Patrick Bonguet received a phone call. The voice at the other end of the line – Alain Charmeau, CEO of Airbus Safran Launchers – said he was looking for the right person to manage the development of a new rocket. “Do you want to take the helm?” he was asked. Bonguet said yes and a short time later, he began work as head of development on Ariane 6.
"The first flight is set for 2020 and we plan to reach full capability three years later. At that stage, we will be able to do 12 launches every year" Patrick Bonguet, Head of Development, Ariane 6
The Ariane family is undergoing a transformation with the introduction of Ariane 6, which is being developed by the Airbus Safran Launchers joint venture. It is Europe’s response to the transformation of the space industry, in which private enterprise is gaining a stronger foothold.
Ariane 6 will be a more flexible, cutting-edge update of Ariane 5. “We are passing all the milestones as planned. European Space Agency (ESA) members have fully validated the programme after a successful in-depth review and we are now working on the detailed design phase,” says Bonguet.
€3 Billion is the approximate total spending for the development of Ariane 6
The roots of Airbus Safran Launchers are planted in the shared technological history of France and Germany, which dates back to the earliest space programmes, and is embodied today by the Ariane launcher. For more than half a century, Europe has been at the forefront of the civil launchers sector and it leads the world market for commercial launches to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).
During this time, the Ariane rocket family has matured, increasing its capacity to reach further into space and deploy larger payloads for space agencies and companies alike. Ariane 6 will be available in two- and four-booster versions, to best respond to all commercial and government missions. It will operate in a coordinated approach with the Vega launcher, which is dedicated to smaller payloads.
“We have managed to almost halve the recurring price: Ariane 6 will cost 40-50% less than Ariane 5, keeping the same reliability. We believe that cheaper means more reliable, tailoring designs to factory operations," explains Bonguet. The new rocket has greater versatility, especially to launch new-generation spacecraft into higher orbits. It will also be able to perform controlled deorbiting and will have an increased volume to carry larger spacecraft, in particular in the lower position."
"We are changing the industrial model of launchers. The foundation of Airbus Safran Launchers was the first step in this direction". Patrick Bonguet, Head of Development, Ariane 6
Gains in competitiveness will come from series production of the rocket engines and a more integrated working approach. This is founded on collaborative engineering and the creation of excellence clusters, standardising designs and means at launcher level and maximizing use of assets.
The creation of Airbus Safran Launchers also enables an optimised end-to-end approach, from raw material to launch, and to create streamlined manufacturing flows. Airbus Safran Launchers will also implement new industrial processes and technologies, such as 3D printing, friction stir welding and laser surface treatment.
David Iranzo, Ariane 5 production and operations engineering manager at Airbus Safran Launchers, started working with Ariane 18 years ago. “Before the 1980s, Europe was using US launchers and we were dependent on their conditions,” Iranzo says.
But Europe worked hard to continually improve its technology. Ariane 2 included a longer final stage to increase its launch capacity to over 2,000 kg. Its immediate successor brought a new addition: strapped-on solid rocket boosters to increase the power of its first stage. The launcher was used until 1989.
Following the US Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, Ariane 4, a newly designed rocket able to put up to 4,800 kg into space, became the only available commercial launcher for a time.
The launch rate doubled and the European programme, spearheaded by the European Space Agency, experienced its first scale-up in production. And with the arrival of the current Ariane 5 version in 2005, the launcher became the undisputed champion of heavy-lift launchers and the world leader for commercial launches to GTO.
Ariane’s accomplishments are “far-reaching”, says David Iranzo. “Think about many of today’s communication and Earth observation satellites: the Meteosat family, for instance.” Ariane rockets have also launched some of Europe’s most outstanding space missions, like the Planck and Herschel observatories, the ATV International Space Station space freighter and the Rosetta comet probe, the first spacecraft to orbit and land on a comet.
Ariane 5 is also currently deploying the Galileo satellite constellation, Europe’s navigation system. And in the coming years, NASA’s next-generation space telescope, James Webb, will ride to space with Ariane 5.
Ariane 6 will be able to extend the boundaries once again. Airbus Safran Launchers signed a €2.4-billion contract with the European Space Agency in August 2015 to develop the Ariane 62 and 64.
The two versions differ in the number of solid rocket boosters, which determine their reach. Ariane 62 has two P120 solid rocket boosters and will be able to lift up to 5,000 kg to geostationary orbit, whereas Ariane 64 will have four boosters, capable of delivering up to 10,500 kg. These rockets will carry the next generation of communication and Earth observation satellites, as well as scientific missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
Airbus Safran Launchers is the prime contractor for Ariane 5, but the launcher family is a truly collective European accomplishment. “European collaboration is fundamental: these rockets would have not been possible without it,” says Iranzo. “Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and many other countries have been involved. Each of them has developed its own experience and knowledge on certain products, which is absolutely essential for making successful launches,” he adds.
Expectations are high for the next chapter in the Ariane story. Ariane launchers have accumulated 232 launches since 1979, of which 221 were successful – a 95.25% success rate. This includes 75 consecutive missions without failure for Ariane 5.
Despite this outstanding record, every launch feels like the first one for everyone involved in its development, says German engineer Claudia Flöte, who has been working in France with Ariane launchers for nearly 10 years. “No matter where I am or what time it is, every time there is a new launch, I switch on my computer and follow it in real time,” she says. “It is a bond that grows stronger and stronger.”