In the jargon it is called ELA-4, for “launch set 4”. In the middle of the verdant Guyanese forest, between the launch pad dedicated to Ariane 5 and that of the Soyuz vessels, the new Ariane 6 stand will be officially inaugurated on Tuesday, September 28. On 170 hectares, workers have been busy since 2015 to dig, concrete, install buildings, make connections and a thousand other things.
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The first launch of the European rocket is not expected before the second quarter of 2022, with two years behind the initial schedule, due to the Covid-19 epidemic. Compared to Ariane 5, “ this model does not mark a technological breakthrough but a rationalization and optimization of costs », Estimates Annafederica Urbano, researcher in propulsion and space launchers at SupAéro.
A rocket built horizontally
Main novelty: the possibility of placing clusters of satellites in orbit, a growing demand for telecommunications and satellite navigation. Ariane 6 is equipped with a brand new Vinci engine, capable of re-igniting in flight to disseminate several loads at different orbit points. A hard blow for the French, the manufacture of this engine will leave the plant in Vernon, in the Eure, to move to Germany.
To meet the demands for flexibility, the rocket will be available in two configurations to carry small or large satellites. And unlike Ariane 5, built vertically and then moved to the launch site, Ariane 6 will first be bolted horizontally, like the Soyuz rockets, then upright on the launch pad. As a result, economies with several sectors that can work in parallel.
No reuse unlike SpaceX
Some critics criticize a rocket “Already outdated” against its main competitor, SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Main complaint: Ariane 6 will not be reusable, where SpaceX recovers and relaunches the first stage, the lowest in a rocket. Despite a chaotic start, customers are no longer afraid to entrust their cargo to a rocket that has already been used. The figures are relentless: the reliability of the Falcon 9 now exceeds that of Ariane 5, with only 3 failures in 126 launches.
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” In reality, it is not obvious that the reusable is more interesting, tempers Annafederica Urbano. A whole chain has to be put in place to recover the floor and put it back into operation. In the absence of a sustained pace of launches, the interest is not obvious. “For SpaceX, which is deploying its Starlink satellites at high speed with 16 launches already carried out in 2021, reusable is undoubtedly useful. For Ariane 5 and its three launches planned this year, nothing is less certain.
Too uncompetitive rates for the private sector?
Another criticism: the cost. Here again, Ariane 6 suffers from the comparison with SpaceX. Except that the competitive rates that SpaceX offers to the private sector are offset by substantial bills paid by the American government, Nasa in the lead. ” It’s fair game, slice Arnaud Saint-Martin, specialist in the history of the space industry. To balance the books, governments always subsidize space programs, directly or indirectly. Ariane 5 also benefited from it. “
This time, the Europeans are struggling to open the wallet. In early September, the European Space Agency (ESA) committed to four institutional launches per year for the debut. Beginnings that could be cut short. ” The continuation is already in preparation with Ariane Next, which amounts to indicating to customers that a model not even used yet will soon be replaced ”, analyzes the researcher at the CNRS.
The recent announcements to cut 600 jobs at ArianeGroup in France and Germany also cast a shadow over the future, especially since Germany is subsidizing its own start-ups in the field. As a specialist puts it euphemistically, “There is a problem of articulation between European space ambitions and national industrial ambitions …”
One rocket, two possibilities
An area of 170 hectares was fitted out in Kourou to prepare the launch pad for the future Ariane 6, which is due to take off in the second quarter of 2022. Several hundred people, mainly hired in Guyana, took part in the work.
Two configurations will be possible for the rocket. Ariane 62, with two engines, will take 4.5 tons into geostationary orbit, while Ariane 64, the heavy version with four engines, will be able to place up to 12 tons there. Ariane 5, in comparison, takes just under 10 tonnes.
Ariane 6 should reduce costs by 40% Ariane 5, whose budget for a flight varies between 150 and 170 million euros.