Space Commerce

Ariane 5’s Final Flight – A Look Back as Ariane 6’s Costly Succession Looms

By Elizabeth Howell
July 3, 2023
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Ariane 5’s Final Flight – A Look Back as Ariane 6’s Costly Succession Looms
The final Ariane 5 launch on July 5, 2023.
Image credit: ESA.

Update: unacceptable winds forced a launch delay on Tuesday, July 4. The launch occurred at 6:00 PM EDT on Wednesday July 5.

Following a two-week delay caused by faulty pyrotechnical transmission lines, Arianespace’s Ariane 5 launch vehicle is now prepared for its final launch on July 4, with a launch window opening at 5:30 PM Eastern US time. As the launch looms ahead, a look back at the Ariane 5 program shows how much the space business has changed in the past 30 years.

Ariane 5’s final launch will be its 117th since it first flew in June 1996. With only two failures and three partial failures that whole time, Ariane 5 has enjoyed a practical success rate of 96 percent. Most of its business came from bringing European satellites into orbit, although there were also scientific missions such as JUICE (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer). Ariane 5 accomplished Europe’s goal of having independent launch access and, for its day, did so at a modest cost and to a highly reliable degree.

An independent economic analysis in 2016 published by the European Space Agency (ESA) provided some economic perspective on how the program performed. Ariane 5 had cost roughly 12 million Euros (roughly $13 million USD at current exchange rates) up to that point, but its GDP impact for European Space Agency states was estimated at 2.2 times more than the figure.

Employment was also calculated as “equal to two”, meaning each job Ariane 5 provided in the space industry generated another job in the wider economy. Other economic benefits for Ariane 5 along with Vega, another rocket considered in the report, included matters such as new technology development, increased business opportunities for participating companies, and more university enrollment.

But the report shies away from stating that Ariane 5 was crucial to all this economic growth. It notes the high cost of the rocket for all European member states, which included two large economic downturns during the survey period, beginning in 2001 and 2008, respectively. That’s no small matter, as the European debt crisis arising from the 2008 recession led to serious debt issues in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Cyprus for complex reasons arising from foreign lending.

Ariane 5 did demonstrate “enabled revenues” in fields such as satellite manufacturing and operations that helped buttress the European economy, but the authors of the analysis noted at least some of the money would still have been realized if other launchers sent the satellites to space. That said, the rocket was especially crucial for ESA’s participation in the International Space Station. “Without the Ariane 5 to deliver the five ATV supply craft, the already heavy financial burden of ISS participation would possibly be too great,” the authors wrote.

While alternatives to Ariane 5, such as the SpaceX Falcon 9, became widely available in recent years, back in 2016 the authors said that losing independent access to space would amount to billions of euros lost. This is in part due to “services never entering the European economy to circulate,” and in part due to security risks and economic issues arising from dependence on foreign governments.

When projecting into the future, however, Ariane 5’s cost value will be difficult to replicate, according to figures from a 2019 report by the European Investment Bank. The rocket fell in the midrange of the prior generation of launchers, with the typical launch cost of sending a payload to low-Earth orbit landing at $8.4 USD per kilogram. That’s compared with a cost of $4.6 per kilogram to launch the same payload with older SpaceX Falcon 9s, at the lowest end.

Will Ariane 6 be worth it?

Successor Ariane 6 is 44 percent less costly than Ariane 5, at an estimated transport cost of $4.7 per kilogram. But now SpaceX’s rides are even cheaper, with Falcon Heavy standing at $1.6 per kilogram and Falcon 9 at $2.7 per kilogram. This cost difference, in large part, comes because SpaceX uses reusable technology, while Ariane 6 will be expendable just as was Ariane 5.

Worse, launch providers are working within a newer market of smaller satellites that are very different from when Ariane 5 first started launching in 1996. As the report notes: “LV [launch vehicle] providers have tuned their launch offer so that they not only match ‘big birds’ — as are extensively performed by Arianespace on its dual-launch Ariane 5 rocket — but offer combinations of one or two bigger satellites with a bunch of smaller satellites.”

The European Investment Bank notes in its report that Ariane 5’s higher cost used to be justified by its reliability. However, SpaceX now has a streak of more than 200 successful Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches that demonstrates it has caught up.

One big opportunity has arisen from Amazon, which has pledged multiple launches aboard Ariane 6 when it is ready — perhaps as soon as this year. Ariane 6 nevertheless will probably face significant cost pressures in the market to stay competitive, and with European reusable launchers not available until the 2030s, it is hard to say how well it will do.

On 5 July 2023 editor Keith Cowing spoke with Deutsche Welle TV about the last flight of the Ariane 5 launch vehicle and its successor, the Ariane 6. [audio]

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