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Ariane 6 released for SpaceX: a massive blow for European space

© CNES

On July 9, the space world will have its eyes fixed on Kourou, in French Guiana. It will be the very first flight of the Ariane 6 rocket, which is to take over from the famous Ariane 5, which has been retired for a year. A highly anticipated flight which should serve as a demonstration for ArianeGroup. The company wants to demonstrate that it is still up to date, facing increasingly fierce competition (mainly from SpaceX).

But this mission, which was to be the culmination of years of work for thousands of people in Europe and around the launch pad, has already been tainted. Indeed, Eumetsat, the European meteorological satellite agency, has decided to spoil the party.

It was to send a device into orbit during this very first flight, allowing Ariane 6 not to fly empty. But it decided to withdraw, two weeks before takeoff, preferring SpaceX and a Falcon 9 rocket to send its satellite into orbit.

An empty flight

This weekend, the announcement had the effect of a bomb. In the small world of European space, certain executives are still not taking off. They feel “betrayed” by one of their own, a European agency, which preferred SpaceX to the flagship of the old continent's space industry.

For Ariane 6 the loss of this mission is especially a big symbolic blow. The company's finances will only be damaged by this desertion, but for the brand image, it's another story. Ariane 6 is already suffering from competition with Ariane 5, its big sister adored by all and recognized as an ultra-reliable rocket the announcement of an empty flight for the first mission on July 9wasn't really the publicity ArianeGroup needed.

An already has-been rocket

Ariane 6 released for SpaceX: a massive blow for European space

The headdress of Ariane 6. It will therefore be empty on July 9 for the rocket's maiden flight © ArianeGroup.

On the other hand, can we really blame Eumetsat ? The European agency chose the most reliable, cheapest and most popular rocket on the market. To the detriment of a European launcher, unsuitable for its time, and whose only proven qualities are the letters of nobility of its manufacturer.

Ariane 6 does not make anyone dream, and that is the tragedy of this launcher. It has not yet left Earth, but it does not tempt almost any industrialist. The rocket is in fact single-use, which requires ArianeGroup to plan its takeoffs well in advance, which will number 2 to 3 per year. Compared to more than 200 for SpaceX's Falcon 9s, which are reusable.

Aesthetically, as technologically, the rocket still seems stuck in the last century. ArianeGroup relies on two solid propellants to take off the central body of the rocket, an architecture abandoned for years by the rest of the industry (with the exception of the SLS, the rocket which must reach the Moon on behalf of the NASA, but whose plans date back to 2004).

To make matters worse, the Ariane 6 schedule has already fallen three years behind its manufacturer’s initial forecasts. Covid-19 is largely responsible for this delay, more than acceptable in the space world, but ArianeGroup's know-how is also starting to be called into question.

Ariane 6 is not a dream

The engineers who made the success of the semi-private company in the 90s with Ariane 5 are all or almost all retired. Is the new guard interested in more “innovative” projects? and “flexible” offered by the New Space ?

In an article for Les Échos, the professor at the Ecole des Mines Frédéric Arnoux already announced at the start of the year 2023 a “brain drain” from European engineers to American giants. An “exodus” particularly visible in France. The results of this process, which has been underway for a good decade, are now evident at ArianeGroup despite reassuring statements from management.

At the start of the year, ArianeGroup cut more than 700 positions, at the same time as SpaceX continues to recruit young engineers straight out of school. Since the summer of 2020, Elon Musk's company has more employees than ArianeGroup.

An uncertain future

Ariane 6 released for SpaceX: a massive blow for European space

One of the last takeoffs of Ariane 5, in 2023 © ESA/Arianespace

Despite these criticisms and a bleak future for Ariane 6, the rocket will fly. For two main reasons. The first is that it has certain qualities. To continue the comparison with Falcon 9, the European rocket can send 11 tons of payload into geostationary orbit. That's three more than a SpaceX rocket.

The second major advantage of Ariane 6 is its origin. The rocket is, even before flying, the number 1 solution for many space players. In Europe, it will be selected by several departments and agencies, for questions of sovereignty, but also of national security. The DGA (Directorate General of the Armed Forces) will not send sensitive devices into orbit with a SpaceX rocket, so its only solution to date is Ariane 6.

The European New Space, adversary or colleague ?

But even within Europe, Ariane 6 could lose its monopoly. The rocket will in fact face competition within a few years from other launchers (the vast majority of which are light). These rockets are being developed in France, Germany and Spain. Dozens of start-ups want to find a place in the European launcher market.

Even within the Ariane group, the 6th rocket of the name is not the only solution envisaged for reaching space. The MaiaSpace project, a subsidiary of ArianeGroup, could well overshadow the parent company. The program already has a generous budget of 125 million euros to develop, and MaiaSpace is one of four companies applying for a government funding plan of 400 million euros as part of the France2030 program. The first flight is expected by the end of 2025.

Faced with so many adversaries, the future of Ariane 6 looks more than uncertain. The rocket, which will therefore fly empty on July 9, will have to quickly fill its order book if it does not want to fall into oblivion in a rapidly changing space industry.

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Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116