Europe’s recent landing of a small probe onto a tiny comet racing ahead on the edge of the solar system – could not have been better timed. The successful project encouraged cash-strapped European governments to spend money on new space adventures.
On Tuesday, representatives of 20 European countries and Canada agreed in Luxembourg to spend €8 billion ($9.9 billion) on space exploration, the group’s largest investment in years.
The funds will go to new research satellites and continued participation in both the International Space Ship, ISS, and the "Orion" spaceship, with which the Americans and Europeans intend to fly to the moon and then Mars at the end of the decade.
Launching an Ariane 5 costs about $200 million, but Space X claims to be up to 30 percent cheaper.
The biggest portion of the funding is earmarked for rocket development. Europeans will spend almost €4 billion ($4.95 billion) to replace the aging Ariane 5 rocket with a successor model. According to the agreement already reached by the Germans and the French, the Ariane 6 will be operational by 2021.
Ariane has evolved into a lucrative business for Europeans. In the mid-1980s, when they decided to build what is now the most powerful rocket in the world, a small space shuttle was supposed to be attached to its tip. But Germany’s reunification costs thwarted those plans, and from then on the tremendous power of the rocket was used primarily to launch commercial satellites.
Although the first Ariane 5 crashed, in June 1996, all 62 lift-offs in the last 12 years have been successful. The rocket's high reliability has pushed down insurance costs and made Europe the market leader. Today, 60 percent of commercial satellites are launched through the launch provider Arianespace.
But competition is mounting. Both the state-owned Russian space agency Roskosmos and the U.S. entrepreneur Elon Musk are challenging the Europeans. Mr. Musk's "Space X" company, in particular, shows that simplicity and low cost are possible in the rocket business. His Falcon 9 launch vehicle is optimized for commercial rocket launches and relies on a relatively simple but sound technology.
Launching an Ariane 5 costs about $200 million, but Space X claims to be up to 30 percent cheaper, as measured by launch costs per ton.
In December 2013, Space X shocked the industry when it launched a 3.2-ton communications satellite into a geostationary orbit with the Falcon 9. The client was the world's second-largest satellite operator, Luxembourg-based SES, previously a loyal customer of Ariane and Arianespace.
Even the German government is now a customer of California-based Space X, which expects to launch the latest generation of German spy satellites into space starting in 2018.
Ariane 6 aims to meet customers’ needs for more flexibly. Two versions are planned with a modular concept. The smaller version, the Ariane 62, with two boosters, could transport a satellite. The larger model, the Ariane 64, has four boosters and, like the current Ariane 5, will be capable of launching two satellites into space.
To help lower costs and make processes more efficient, Airbus Defence, the lead agency in the construction of the Ariane, is combining its activities with French engine manufacturer Safran. And the two partners are pushing for more leeway from the European Space Agency, ESA, which has controlled many details of the Ariane program until now.
Whether Europe’s new investment program will be enough to stop high-flyer Elon Musk in the space business remains unclear. But it’s a good start.
Markus Fasse reports on the aviation and automotive sectors for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]