from the go-for-primary-ignition dept.
The vehicle is due to enter service in 2020, gradually replacing the existing workhorse, the Ariane 5.
The prime contractor, the recently rebranded ArianeGroup, gave an update on the status of the programme here at this week's Paris Air Show.
"We're on track with our roadmap and Ariane 6 is progressing very well," CEO Alain Charmeau told BBC News.
"Perhaps the most spectacular highlight at the moment is the testing of our Vinci engine. It's a brand new engine that will be on our new, versatile upper-stage. And on Monday we had another successful test. We're now well above 100 hundred tests."
The Vinci can be stopped and restarted multiple times. It will permit the Ariane 6 to conduct a broader range of missions than its predecessor.
It can also bring the upper-stage out of orbit after it has dropped off the satellite payload. This is a nod to the tightening "clean space" requirements that demand rocket operators leave as little debris in space as possible.
Also mentioned were the A62 and A64 variants which feature a central, liquid-fueled (hydrogen and oxygen) core combined with either 2 or 4 solid-fueled boosters.
Previously, the EU-propped Ariane Group's CEO scoffed at the idea of pursuing reusable rockets (the upcoming Ariane 6 is fully expendable) due to Europe having a small market of 5-10 launches per year, as well as the potential effects on rocket-building jobs:
[Chief executive of Ariane Group, Alain] Charmeau said the Ariane rocket does not launch often enough to justify the investment into reusability. (It would need about 30 launches a year to justify these costs, he said). And then Charmeau said something telling about why reusability doesn't make sense to a government-backed rocket company—jobs.
"Let us say we had ten guaranteed launches per year in Europe and we had a rocket which we can use ten times—we would build exactly one rocket per year," he said. "That makes no sense. I cannot tell my teams: 'Goodbye, see you next year!'"
This seems a moment of real irony. Whereas earlier in the interview Charmeau accuses the US government of subsidizing SpaceX, a few minutes later he says the Ariane Group can't make a reusable rocket because it would be too efficient. For Europe, a difficult decision now looms. It can either keep subsidizing its own launch business in order to maintain an independent capability, or it can give in to Elon Musk and SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin. Charmeau seems to have a clear view of where he thinks the continent should go.
Now, the attitude has changed:
This month, the European Commission revealed a new three-year project to develop technologies needed for two proposed reusable launch vehicles. The commission provided €3 million to the German space agency, DLR, and five companies to, in the words of a news release about the project, "tackle the shortcoming of know-how in reusable rockets in Europe."
This new RETALT project's goals are pretty explicit about copying the retro-propulsive engine firing technique used by SpaceX to land its Falcon 9 rocket first stages back on land and on autonomous drone ships. The Falcon 9 rocket's ability to land and fly again is "currently dominating the global market," the European project states. "We are convinced that it is absolutely necessary to investigate Retro Propulsion Assisted Landing Technologies to make re-usability state-of-the-art in Europe."
Ariane Group isn't one of the five companies, but then again, €3 million isn't a lot of money.
Even a fully reusable rocket is on the table:
[...] attitude of the new RETALT project appears to have indicated European acceptance of the inevitability of reusable launch vehicles. Engineers will work toward two different concepts. The first will be a Falcon-9-like rocket that will make use of seven modified Vulcain 2 rocket engines and have the capacity to lift up to 30 tons to low-Earth orbit. The second will be a more revolutionary single-stage-to-orbit vehicle that looks like the Roton rocket developed by Rotary Rocket about two decades ago.
They should mine Elon Musk's Twitter for clues. Try making the rocket out of stainless steel.