February 4, 2023

Brighton Journal

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European launch chief insists there is no competition with Ariane missiles

Zoom in / The Pathfinder version of the Ariane 6 rocket seen at the launch facilities in Kourou, French Guiana.

European Space Agency

The development of the commercial launch industry in Europe lags behind the United States by about 10 or 15 years, but there are now about a dozen startups in Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, and France making small rockets sometimes referred to as “precision launchers.”

The European Space Agency and many of these countries have provided a modicum of support to these companies, often in the form of launch contracts worth a few million dollars. But so far, the European Space Organizations have stopped helping these commercial companies further, as NASA has done with commercial shipping and crew programs for the International Space Station.

One reason for this is Europe’s well-established launch monopoly, Arianespace. Owned by several aerospace suppliers across Europe, the Paris-based launch company markets and operates a small launcher in the form of the Vega C rocket, heavy-lift rockets in the form of the soon-to-be-retired Ariane 5 and the upcoming Ariane 6 rocket.

These missiles are essential to Europe’s strategic interests because they provide European countries with independent access to space.

In recent years, with the rise of private launch companies primarily backed by investors in Europe, some space officials have called on the European Space Agency to support these commercial space entities as NASA and the US government have done for the past 15 years.

However, at the 15th European Space Conference on Tuesday in Brussels, Arianespace CEO Stefan Israel vetoed the idea.

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“It is not possible to copy and paste the American model,” he said. “It’s not possible. The level of space spending in the US is five times higher than in Europe, and private capital is not the same. So if the answer is to say let’s do what the US did, I think we won’t succeed in doing it.”

Moreover, Israel said the European Space Agency should resist subsidizing operators so small that they could rival existing capabilities.

“It would be a huge mistake for this focus on micro-actuators to destabilize Ariane 6 and VegaC, and that would be a historic mistake,” he said. “Small bombers can be supportive to boost innovation. But we shouldn’t create confusion. This operator will never be given independent access to space to Europe. They’re in a niche market that’s maybe 10 percent of the market, less than that when it comes to the needs of Europe “.

Israel said the Vega C and Ariane 6 are the right missiles for Europe now and for the next decade. But he acknowledged that Europe must also develop a reusable heavy-lift vehicle. Although he doesn’t explicitly state it, this appears to be a clear acknowledgment of the success SpaceX has had with the Falcon 9 rocket and its development of the fully reusable Starship rocket.

Israel said: “We need a reusable heavy bomber.” “A full stop. That’s what we need. And I don’t think Europe can afford two, three or four reusable large or heavy bombers.” [require] Lots of public money, industrial concession, and I’m more confident than ever that he will [require] Solidarity in Europe to make this happen.”

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The Arianespace chief couldn’t be clearer: He wants no competition for Vega C and Ariane 6, nor does he think any commercial European company should have a chance to compete with developing a next-generation reusable rocket.

However, what Israel did not say is also important. With a lift capacity of about 2 metric tons to low Earth orbit but a price tag of nearly $40 million, the Vega rocket is no competitor to commercial rockets or India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Moreover, this Italian-made missile has failed in three of its last eight flights. Also, while Israel is promoting the Ariane 6, this missile does not exist yet. Europe has spent nearly 5 billion dollars developing this booster, Which may not fly until 2024 It will be four years late.

Thus, based on this recent record, Israel believes that the current launch monopoly in Europe should maintain this monopoly for decades to come. It is up to European space officials to decide whether they agree.