SpaceX’s entry into commercial space launches back in 2013 has caught up with the European Space Agency. SpaceX is known for their low-costs for launching satellites and sending gear to the International Space Station.
The ESA has been haggling over how to proceed with the Ariane satellite launch vehicle for more than two years. A deal is expected to be in place this week, though. Germany was holding out for a two-step project to upgrade the current Ariane 5 system, but now supports the full development of the Ariane 6 satellite launch vehicle.
The Ariane 6 will allow the ESA to better compete with SpaceX. Right now, SpaceX offers satellite launches for 50 million euros. The Ariane 5 costs 130 million euros per launch. The new Ariane 6 will trim that cost to around 60-70 million euros.
The Ariane system is a popular launch option, and holds a 50% market share. But, the ESA knows it needs to do something before competitors like SpaceX eat into that market share and the thousands of jobs it supports.
Karim Michel Sabbagh, chief executive of satellite operator SES, told Reuters, “It would be very serious if there is no decision on Dec 2 because Europe would have a competitive delay that it would never manage to reverse.”
Research ministers will meet in Luxembourg on Tuesday to discuss the Ariane launch system and more. The BBC reports France will cover a significant portion of the funding, but needs Germany’s support. Germany has ditched the idea of an upgrade to the current Ariane system, but does want something in return.
Johann-Dietrich Woerner, head of Germany’s space agency (DLR), told the BBC his country will help with development of the Ariane 6, “but it depends also that France and Italy are going ahead with ISS.”
Here’s a concept of the Ariane 6. It will come in two variants. One has two solid boosters that can launch 5 ton satellites to orbit. Another with 4 solid boosters that can launch 11 ton satellites.
The ministers will also decide whether the ESA will continue to participate in the ISS beyond 2020. Germany has made it clear they will support the Ariane 6 only if other European countries push forward with ISS support.
The group of ministers will also decide what to do with the ExoMars rover. The plan is to send it to Mars in 2018 to look for signs of life, but it needs about 200 million euros to get it done.
With Ariane 6 and ISS funding on deck, it looks like the ExoMars rover might be the casualty.