Northern Sky Research

The Cheapest Launch Vehicle?

Aug 19th, 2013

Ariane-6, potentially the next European launcher, is to address both governmental and commercial needs, but its relevance in the long term global market may be questionable. 

The launcher is slated to be a modular rocket with a maximum capacity of 6.5 tons to GTO for a price tag of €70 million ($92.8 millions) per launch. ESA stated that the design was driven by time-to-market, development and operating costs, and it should eventually replace both the European Soyuz and Ariane-5.

The commercial GTO launch services segment saw satellite average masses greatly increase over the past 20 years, and there is no reason for this trend to stop. By 2020, NSR expects that close to 15% of all satellites launched will have a mass above 6,200 kg, and the trend toward higher masses should accelerate. The main bottleneck to further growth will no longer exist as several launch vehicles capable of lifting more than 6.5 tons will be available (such as Angara-5, Falcon-Heavy, and Ariane-5 (if not retired….)).

Ariane-6 will be able to address a large part of the market; however, it will not have any special feature/s and no differentiation, thus no captive niche market.  Ariane-6 will constantly compete with bigger launch vehicles, namely (assuming no company disappears and China’s rockets continue to be barred from the markets):

  • ILS’ Angara-5 (7.5 tons to GTO)
  • SeaLaunch’s Zenit-3SL (6.7 tons after an improvement program)
  • SpaceX’s Falcon-Heavy (12 tons)
  • Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ H-2B (8 tons after an improvement program)

Ariane-6 will have an almost unique launch mass capability as only Mitsubishi Heavy Industries may develop a launcher with similar capabilities. However, as this peculiarity involves being less capable than most of its competitors, it will likely compete on cost only. Thus to succeed, Ariane-6 will have to be among the cheapest commercial launch vehicles in the 2020’s. ESA’s cost-driven design aims at achieving this.

However, it is very unlikely to happen as Europe’s geographic return policy gives no sign of being  lifted or softened anytime soon. In concrete terms, it means that the launch vehicle manufacturing locations, thus the contractors, will be directly related to their country’s investment in the Ariane-6 development.  Besides any impact this may have had on the technological choices behind Ariane-6’s design, another direct consequence is that it creates numerous local monopolies over the launch vehicles’ subsystems manufacturing, driving the costs up. This policy has already been a large factor in Ariane-5’s high cost.

Ariane-6 could launch bigger payloads by increasing the booster’s size, increasing its addressable market. However, the effect on cost is unclear as Ariane-6’s cost savings are related to the use of a large number of identical boosters.

Bottom Line

Every technological choice made by ESA can generally be copied by other players with comparable capabilities.  However the European geographic return policy is not something likely to be imitated, and this impedes Arianespace’s competitiveness. ESA’s promise of a cheap rocket seems out of reach due to this policy.

For the future however, instead of designing Europe’s next launch vehicle and wasting energy in justifying its relevancy in the global market, ESA could make a truly revolutionary move. It could step-back, create the conditions for the private market to develop a new launch vehicle, and support this process by acting as a future anchor client.  In doing so, it would bypass the geographic return policy and could boost Europe’s space industry, harvesting its capabilities to innovate.

Information for this article was extracted from NSR's report: Satellite Manufacturing & Launch Services, 3rd Edition