NEWTOWN, Conn. --- Increasing competition in the launch industry, particularly from U.S.-based SpaceX, is creating a need for change in the Ariane lineup. While the Ariane 5 currently in service has a longer record of success than new entrants like SpaceX, the launch vehicle is much more expensive.
To improve their competitive standing, European nations have approved a number of changes to the launch industry. A new launch vehicle, called the Ariane 6, is being developed to replace the Ariane 5. It will be sold in two variants, with common components, that will be able to carry a range of payloads into orbit. The Ariane 6 will also share components with Europe's smaller Vega launch vehicle, further increasing economies of scale.
The European space industry will also be consolidated. Airbus and Saran formed a joint venture to manage production of the Ariane 6. The joint venture will also own a majority stake in Arianespace, which markets the launch vehicle to commercial customers.
These changes promise to significantly reduce the price of the Ariane 6 compared to the Ariane 5, making it more competitive on the commercial market. However, SpaceX continues to make advances in its product line in an attempt to further lower costs. For example, the company recently began using reused recycled first stages, promising to lower costs compared to manufacturing a new one for every launch.
Still, ArianeGroup believes that it can substantially lower costs by consolidating manufacturing, increasing economies of scale, and utilizing the latest technology. Furthermore, ESA and ArianeGroup intend to begin investing in developing a new, smaller, rocket motor called Prometheus to replace the Vulcain 2.1 and Vinci engines planned to equip early versions of the Ariane 6. Using multiple smaller engines rather than a single larger engine will increase production volume, enabling economies of scale. ESA has also awarded ArianeGroup a contract to investigate how ways to make the Prometheus reusable.
ESA and ArianeGroup expect the first launch to occur in 2020. However, Forecast International believes that 2021 is more likely, given the budget situation in Europe and the difficulty of developing a new launch vehicle. Operational flights of the Ariane 6 will begin a couple years later, and by the mid- to late 2020s, the vehicle will have completely taken over commercial and government launches from the Ariane 5.