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Oops—It looks like the Ariane 6 rocket may not offer Europe any launch savings

Night time at a giant rocket hanger.
Enlarge / Under the stars with the Ariane 6 launch base at Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana.

Nearly a decade ago, the European Space Agency announced plans to develop the next generation of its Ariane rocket, the Ariane 6 booster. The goal was to bring a less costly workhorse rocket to market that could compete with the likes of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster and begin flying by 2020.

It has been well documented that development of the Ariane 6 is running years behind—the vehicle is now unlikely to fly before the middle of 2024 and subject to further delays. For example, a critical long-duration hot fire of the vehicle’s Vulcain 2.1 main engine had been scheduled for “early October,” but there have been no recent updates on when this key test will occur.

However, there are also increasing concerns that the Ariane 6 rocket will not meet its ambitious price targets. For years, European officials have said they would like to cut the price of launches by half with a rocket that is easier to manufacture and by flying an increased cadence of missions.

The price of Ariane rockets, for the public, has always been something of a black box. However, a reasonable estimate for a baseline Ariane 5 rocket is 150 million euros. Cutting that price in half, therefore, would be about 75 million euros. That is reasonably competitive with the Falcon 9 rocket, which has a base price of $67 million (63 million euros).

I am altering the deal

However, as Ars previously reported, a 50 percent cost reduction is no longer achievable. Speaking in June at the Paris Air Show, the European Space Agency’s Toni Tolker-Nielsen said the Ariane 6 is projected to come in at a higher cost per launch than first predicted. The Ariane 6’s cost per flight will be about 40 percent lower than that of the now-retired Ariane 5, short of the previous goal.

Additionally, during a news conference in early September, the chief executive of Arianespace, Stéphane Israël, declined to discuss price specificity. He only said costs were going up, and these would necessarily be reflected in prices.

“The recurring costs of the Ariane 6 are impacted by inflation because we are in the real economy, and you can imagine we have the same issues,” he said. “For sure, there is inflation, and we have to cope with this fact.”

Then, on Sunday, the French financial newspaper La Tribune reported that ArianeGroup would seek additional subsidies to support the operation of the Ariane 6 rocket. For the sake of clarity, the European Space Agency funds development of the Ariane 6, ArianeGroup—which is owned by Airbus and Safran—develops and manufactures the Ariane 6, and Arianespace sells and launches them.

Since 2021, the publicly funded European Space Agency has provided a subsidy of 140 million euros annually to ArianeGroup in order to make the Ariane 6 rocket more competitive in the commercial market. That is to say, taxpayers are subsidizing the cost of building Ariane 6 rockets so that they will be more attractive to private satellite operators seeking a ride to space.

However, according to the French news report, ArianeGroup is asking for a substantial increase to this subsidy, to 350 million euros a year. If this were approved by the European Space Agency, it would blow any cost savings for the Ariane 6 rocket, compared to the Ariane 5, out of the water.

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