Due to the cessation of collaboration with Russia, delays in Ariane 6 and problems in Vega-C, Europe will see its access to space difficult for two years.
“We are going to experience two years of scaled-down releases.” Five weeks after the failure of the European Vega-C launcher, Stéphane Israel, CEO of Arianespace, does not beat around the bush: Europe’s autonomous access to space is hampered and this situation is likely to continue for many, many months.
“We had carried out fifteen launches in 2021. We still hoped to do better in 2022”, explained the head of the European space launch operator during the 15th European Space Conference, which takes place every year in Brussels. But the opposite happened:war in Ukraine forced Arianespace to drastically reduce its operational wings in 2022. Only one launch of the Russian Soyuz medium launcher took place last year. Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine put an abrupt end to collaboration with the Russians on launchers. Although the end of this cooperation was foreseen with the arrival of the new launchers Ariane 6 and Vega-C, the blow was hard to bear for Arianespace.
“In the space field, there are often unforeseen events.”
The Ariane 6 program is now more than three years behind schedule and its first release was pushed back to late 2023. “If everything goes as planned,” admitted André-Hubert Roussel, CEO of ArianeGroup, the prime contractor for the Ariane launcher family. “However, in the space field, there are often unforeseen events,” he added. For now, however, the news remains good: despite schedule delays, Ground tests of the rocket’s restartable upper stage in Germany it has not revealed any flaws and the combined tests of the entire launcher at Kourou are going well. For its part, the Canopée, a new generation hybrid freighter that will transport Ariane 6 subsets from Europe to French Guiana, docked in mid-January at the port of Pariacabo in Kourou, after crossing the Atlantic for the first time. This freighter, soon to be equipped with sails, should make it possible to reduce transport costs by half.
“It is completely impossible to extend Ariane 5.”
Despite this progress, Arianespace is without a heavy launcher. There are only two Ariane 5s left to launch and they have been under contract for several years. One of the two rockets will be used to launch the European probe JUICE to Jupiter and its icy moons in April. “It is completely impossible to extend the Ariane 5”, specifies Stéphane Israël. Production lines are being dismantled. Launches from Ariane 5 were too expensive and unsuitable for low-orbit satellite constellations, which precipitated their demise.
But it would not be possible to accelerate the rate of Ariane 6 next year, once the qualifying shot is successful? “Until this launch is successful, ArianeGroup cannot venture very far on orders from hundreds of subcontractors,” objects one expert. “Most of them are waiting. It will take a while for the rhythm to be found.”
An unavailable launcher
Arianespace had the Vega-C light launcher to secure part of the contracts, but the latter missed its first commercial launch. and no one can say how long it will remain unavailable. A commission of inquiry to identify the cause of the failure and the means of remedying it is due to present its conclusions in February.
This Jug Crisis if this leads to a questioning of the European sector, a little hampered by georeturn rules? The difference seems to be widening with the American SpaceX, which operated 61 launches in 2022 and aims for 100 launches this year. “It is impossible to copy and paste the American model, due to the importance of government launches in the US. There is no equivalent institutional market in Europe”, replies Stéphane Israël, who also cites the ease of access to private financing in the US.
Despite these reservations, the current situation is prompting some countries and some European players to embark on the development of mini-launchers, to try and nibble away at some of the small satellite market. At the last meeting of the European Space Agency (ESA), France, Germany and Italy thought they had settled the issue by agreeing on the future operation of the Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets, allowing the sending of micro and mini-launchers on behalf of the ESA. According to some speeches heard this Tuesday at the space conference, particularly on the German side, the problem of future intra-European competition still does not seem to be completely resolved.
- Europe no longer has access to the Russian Soyuz medium launcher since the invasion of Ukraine, the Ariane 6 heavy launcher is three years overdue and the Vega light launcher is grounded.
- These three constraints will force Arianespace will be idle for two years.
- The current situation is driving some countries and some European players to embark on the development of mini-launchers.