Ariane 6 wins OneWeb launch contract – will ride on maiden flight

by Chris Bergin

Arianespace’s new rocket, the Ariane 6, will make her maiden flight with OneWeb satellites onboard, following a contract announcement on Tuesday.  The contract, which includes options for future Ariane 6 launches, will open with the qualification launch of the Ariane 62 version in the latter part of 2020.

The Ariane 6 will be an evolution via integration streamlining and innovated design changes are major elements, which will play into reducing costs in an increasingly competitive launch provider marketplace.

Evolving from Ariane’s currently in-house fleet of Ariane 5 and Vega, the new rockets will have more commonality between them. Arianespace is still expecting to also launch Russian-built Soyuz rockets.

To reduce costs, 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.

As noted, the new era will also see Ariane 6 and Vega C brought closer together via the synergy of the boosters.

Ariane 6 and Vega C – via ESA

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.

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.

Arianespace believes a focus on this approach of reducing costs is a bigger priority than the promotion of reusability. Officials have previously noted they are “watching” SpaceX to see if returning boosters back to Earth for reuse is “cost effective”. However, those comments came during the initial successes and SpaceX has already flown two Falcon 9’s three times.

If – as is expected – SpaceX shows reusability is an obvious business case for all launch companies, Arianespace has plans.

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.

Later, the company said it was actively working on a project it calls “Prometheus”, a very low-cost reusable engine project, which will make extensive use of 3D printing.

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, the company believes it can save 50 percent of costs based on its “integration streamlining and innovated design changes”.

With Ariane 6 set to debut in the latter part of 2020, Arianespace has been busy earning contracts to provide it with a healthy manifest.

Run from London, OneWeb is building the world’s largest and highest throughput satellite system. To develop its constellation of satellites under 200 kg, OneWeb had already signed a contract with Arianespace in 2015 for 21 Soyuz launches and has also booked places on other launch providers, including Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne.

Following the successful opening launch on a recent Arianespace Soyuz ST-B rocket, the company announced this week it has secured its largest fundraising round to date with the successful raise of $1.25 billion in new capital. This brings the total funds raised to $3.4 billion. This round was led by SoftBank Group Corp., Grupo Salinas, Qualcomm Technologies Inc., and the Government of Rwanda.

“This latest funding round, our largest to date, makes OneWeb’s service inevitable and is a vote of confidence from our core investor base in our business model and the OneWeb value proposition,” said Adrian Steckel, CEO of OneWeb.

“With the recent successful launch of our first six satellites, near-completion of our innovative satellite manufacturing facility with our partner Airbus, progress towards fully securing our ITU priority spectrum position, and the signing of our first customer contracts, OneWeb is moving from the planning and development stage to deployment of our full constellation.

“Our success is made possible thanks to the backing of our investors and the cooperation of our world class commercial partners including Arianespace, Airbus, Qualcomm Technologies Inc., Virgin, and Hughes.”

It is expected that 300 satellites will allow it to reach service before the initial constellation – compromised of approximately 650 satellites – will provide full coverage before scaling to more than 900 spacecraft as it grows to meet demand around the world. A figure of around 2,000 has been mentioned in the company’s overall ambitions, which also includes a large number of spares.

Ariane 6 will be available to OneWeb from the second half of 2020 to provide launch capacity that supports the full deployment and replenishment of the OneWeb constellation.

The launch service agreement specifies the use of the qualification launch of the Ariane 62 version, scheduled for the second half of 2020; the two Ariane 6 options (either in its 62 version, accommodating up to 36 OneWeb satellites, or in the 64 version, up to 78 OneWeb satellites) will be utilized starting in 2023.

The OneWeb satellites will be launched by the first Ariane 62 into a near-polar orbit at an altitude of 500 kilometers before raising themselves to their operational orbit.

“We are glad to see OneWeb on board the first Ariane 6. It confirms its attractiveness on today’s commercial market and sets a mark for Ariane 6’s future,” added Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA Director of Space Transportation.

Visualization of a OneWeb satellite in orbit – via OneWeb

Airbus has built the initial satellites, while OneWeb plans to locate a 100,000 square foot satellite manufacturing facility on Florida’s Space Coast at Exploration Park, just south of Kennedy Space Center to build the hundreds of additional satellites that will be launched over the coming years.

The satellites work on the Ku band, communicating in the microwave range of frequencies in the 12–18 GHz portion of the electromagnetic spectrum and use a technique called “progressive pitch” in which the satellites are slightly turned to avoid interference with Ku-band satellites in geostationary orbit.

The user terminal antenna on the ground will be a phased array antenna measuring approximately 36 by 16 centimeters (14.2 by 6.3 in) and will provide Internet access at 50 megabits/second.

For this first launch, six operational satellites and four “mockups” were launched.

Installing the satellites on the dispenser – via OneWeb

These will provide pathfinder testing, not unlike the two Starlink satellites that SpaceX launched a year ago. Starlink is set to be another huge broadband constellation that will involve thousands of satellites.

“Arianespace is extremely proud to be a part of the effort to deploy OneWeb’s constellation. OneWeb’s choice to fly aboard the first Ariane 6 says a great deal about Arianespace’s DNA: we have always been at the forefront in bringing together innovation and reliability,” noted Stéphane Israël, Arianespace Chief Executive Officer.

“This contract illustrates the outstanding versatility of our future launcher, which will be a champion during the next decade, embracing all market needs. I wish also to thank the European Space Agency which has accepted to allocate to the market this first flight of Ariane 6, which is part of its development contract with our prime contractor and parent company ArianeGroup.”

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