Space industry stalwart Arianespace believes it will continue to compete in the global launch services market by focusing on innovation and efficiency with its upcoming Ariane 6 and Vega C launch systems. Although a level of reusability may be on the cards in the future, the company wants to focus on reducing costs while monitoring companies like SpaceX to evaluate the viability of reuse.
Despite growing international competition, Arianespace has a bulging order book and is pushing for another busy year.
Their latest launch – the Ariane 5 launch with Echostar 18 and BRISAT – was Arianespace’s fifth liftoff in 2016, with the overall goal of performing up to 12 flights this year using the heavy-lift Ariane 5, medium-lift Soyuz and lightweight Vega launchers.
The company conducted 12 missions in 2015, with six launches of its Ariane 5, along with three launches of its Soyuz launcher and another three involving the Vega rocket. Arianespace has now racked up over 250 flights in total.
“(Overall) we’re 36 years old, so we’re a little bit older than SpaceX,” said Clayton Mowry is President of Arianespace, Inc., with responsibility for managing Arianespace’s customer, industry and governmental relations at the company’s US affiliate.
“We’ve orbited over 50 percent of the world’s telecommunication satellites to Geostationary orbit (GEO), but we’ve also launched science and navigations missions, so we think of ourselves as a leader.”
Speaking of the company’s “heavy lift champion”, the Ariane 5, Mr. Mowry spoke of 71 successes in a row for the rocket in her ECA and ES configurations, with dual-payload launch capacity and the utilization of two launch pads at the European Spaceport in Kourou.
Arianespace’s business in the United States – of which Mr. Mowry is responsible for – has seen 25 percent of the communication satellites launched by the company involving American operators, while 50 percent of the birds that have ridden uphill on an Arianespace rocket were built in the US.
An Ariane 5 will also be the launch vehicle of choice for the James Webb Space Telescope’s ride to space.
However, the future will see the Ariane 5 phased out, to be replaced by the Ariane 6 – which is a major part of Arianespace’s new approach.
That approach differs to that of their main rivals, which – while also looking at refining their costs to make them more competitive – has one skeptical eye on the goal of reusability.
“You’ve heard about reusability and what SpaceX is doing is to be applauded and is quite exceptional. Their ability to land these boosters has captured the world’s attention,” added Mr. Mowry, speaking at the recent Space Tech Expo in California (L2 Video and Slides).
“We’re looking at a little bit of a different approach in terms of how we capitalize on the investments we’ve made, building on the future by using capabilities and technologies that we have experience with, innovating new technologies and building a system that’s really designed for cost and economies of scale production.”
Working with Airbus Safran Launchers – who Mr. Mowry believes will soon become a majority shareholder in Arianespace – Ariane 6 is a fully funded development that is currently working with customers on preferred definitions and “what kind of envelopes those guys want to launch in and what lift capacity is needed.”
Looking towards cost savings, Mr. Mowry cited integration streamlining and innovated design changes are major elements.
The Ariane 6’s Vulcain 2.1 engine is built with fewer parts while holding a greater efficiency, while the improved Vinci upper stage will allow for additional orbital destinations for more flexibility via a wider reignition capability.
Cross-rocket streamlining will be involved for the upgraded Vega C rocket, which is the new version of Arianespace’s small lift capability rocket, Vega.
With Ariane 6 (62 and 64) using the P120c solid motor as boosters, the motor will also be the first stage of the Vega C. This will provide the company with three platforms for specific customers.
“The 62 will be more for government and institutional customers – such as space agencies, although not quite the lift for GEO satellites, which will be mainly launched on the 64 version, which will have over 10.5 mT of capability to GEO,” added Mr. Mowry, noting they expect to produce 35 boosters per year, in turn driving down the cost by 40 to 50 percent.
“If we can reduce those costs, we can increase the production capability, which will continue to drive down the price per kilogram to orbit.”
Streamlining on the operational and integration side will see Ariane 6 and Vega C move into horizontal processing, with the boosters undergoing production at the new facility at Kourou.
“We’re going to have the boosters poured and cast right there at the launch site. They will be arriving on rail lines to the new launch pad (which is already in early construction),” Mr. Mowry continued.
“We’re also going to do horizontal integration, which we do today for Soyuz, hadn’t done this for Ariane. This is a good lesson we’ve learned from SpaceX, which learned the lessons from the Russians, I think originally. So we’re learning as we go here.
“And then (once rolled out), we’ll go vertical on the launch pad. We’ll encapsulate the satellites at a separate facility on site, bring those over to the pad and hoist them on top. That’s another way we’re aiming to achieve efficiencies. ”
Again referencing SpaceX, Mr. Mowry ended his overview by touching on reusability again, citing that “Europe” has a test program related to Airbus’ conceptual ideas of returning the engines from the core stage.
Led by Airbus, the concept for a partially reusable system codenamed Adeline (ADvanced Expendable Launch with INnovative engine Economy) is being evaluated.
Under this system, which Airbus believes could easily be incorporated into the Ariane 6’s design between 2025 and 2030, the Ariane 6’s first stage engines and avionics packages would detach from the first stage after use, re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, and then fly itself back to a runway at or near the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana.
Airbus currently believes that this type of reuse system could help offset 20 percent to 30 percent of the total cost of a flight and could result in the engines and avionics packages being re-flown between 10 to 20 times.
However, Mr. Mowry claims the reusability angle is not a current priority for Arianespace until it’s proven to be economically viable. Something SpaceX may be close to proving, which Arianespace is keeping an eye on.
“Once we see some of the lessons learned by SpaceX and others, such as whether or not it can be profitable, based on how many times it can fly (via reuse), what do you need to build into those systems to make that a cost effective system, etc.” Mr. Mowry added as the reason for the company’s stance.
“So, today we’re working only on streamlining operations to lower prices via cost savings of up to 50 percent.”
(Images: via Arianespace, Airbus and L2)
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