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Ariane 6 test
An Ariane 6 test model during a static-fire test November 23. ESA member states agreed earlier in the month to support that rocket while opening the door to future competition. (credit: ESA/M. Pedoussaut)

Europe turns to competition to improve its launch industry’s competitiveness

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European officials have acknowledged for months that the continent is in a “launcher crisis” caused by problems with new rockets like the Ariane 6 and Vega C (see “A crisis and an opportunity for European space access”, The Space Review July 10, 2023). But sometimes it seems like any mode of transportation in Europe is fraught with difficulty.

“I traveled by Deutsche Bahn. I was not sure that I could make it,” quipped Walther Pelzer, director general of the German Space Agency at DLR, in a keynote at Space Tech Expo Europe in Bremen, Germany, earlier this month, referring to the German rail operator.

He was followed by his French counterpart, Philippe Baptiste, CEO of the French space agency CNES. “I did not come by Deutsche Bahn. I came by Air France,” he said. “I’d rather not talk about it.”

“We have to change how we procure the launchers of the future,” Aschbacher said at the briefing, embracing a launch services approach like that used in the United States.

Both, though, did make it to Bremen, just as European officials traveled a week earlier to Seville, Spain, for a second European Space Summit involving member states of the European Space Agency and European Union. It was in Seville where ESA members agreed to a new launch strategy that would provide near-term support for Ariane 6 and Vega C while enabling far bigger changes to the long-term European launch landscape.

At the end of the ESA portion of the Space Summit November 6, agency officials announced an agreement to address current problems with Europe’s access to space. ESA will back what the agency called “stabilized exploitation” of Ariane 6 and Vega C, providing up to 340 million euros ($370 million) annually for Ariane 6 and 21 million euros ($23 million) annually for Vega C. That will go towards production of a set of 27 Ariane 6 and 17 Vega C rockets.

“This is very good news because we have a stable future for launchers in Europe of medium and large sizes,” said Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s director general, at a press conference after the summit. “This is a big relief, I can tell you, because a few days ago we did not have this situation yet.”

That decision affirmed the importance, in the near term, of both rockets despite their ongoing challenges. Ariane 6 was set to debut in 2020 but its first launch has been pushed back to some time in 2024 (an announcement about a more specific launch date could come as soon as this Thursday, after a successful long-duration static-fire test last week.) Vega C has been grounded since a December 2022 launch failure and is not expected to return to service before the fourth quarter of 2024.

However, ESA members also decided at the summit to open the door to other launch vehicles. They agreed to a competition or “challenge” program that would allow other launch providers to compete for an unspecified set of government missions starting later in the decade, rather than assigning them to either Ariane 6 or Vega C.

“We have to change how we procure the launchers of the future,” Aschbacher said at the briefing, embracing a launch services approach like that used in the United States. He called it a “paradigm shift,” a phrase repeated by many other European officials in the days and weeks after the summit.

Competition, said CNES’s Baptiste, is “the only option for Europe to regain its position as a global space power.”

However, ESA offered few details at the summit about how the competition would work: what companies would be eligible and what missions would be competed, among other details. An ESA spokesperson said last week that details about the proposed competition will be developed next year, with a goal of presenting a program that ESA members would fund at the next triennial ministerial conference in 2025. The potential missions, the spokesperson said, would be identified by ESA along with the European Commission, weather satellite operator Eumetsat, and national governments.

At Space Tech Expo Europe a week after the Space Summit, industry and government officials supported that new launch competition strategy despite a lack of details. “Competition will be the method of choice in the launcher sector in the future,” said Pelzer, noting that Germany advocated for a launcher challenge at an ESA meeting earlier in the year. “Monopolies imply a lot of risks.”

“We collectively agreed that the new model, resting on competition and service procurement, will frame Europe’s launcher and, most likely, low orbit landscape in the future,” said CNES’s Baptiste. “It’s the only option for Europe to regain its position as a global space power.”

Some European launch startups at the conference also backed the concept of a competition. “The Space Summit was an inflection point for the space industry in Europe,” said Ezequiel Sánchez, executive president of PLD Space. That Spanish company that performed a successful suborbital launch of its Miura 1 rocket in October and is working on the Miura 5 small launch vehicle, set to begin launches as soon as 2025.

“Our perception is that it is a clear opportunity for small launchers,” he said. “It’s very good news.”

Miura 1
Spanish launch startup PLD Space launched its Miura 1 suborbital rocket in October as a test for its larger Miura 5 orbital launch vehicle. (credit: PLD Space)

He appeared on a panel with Alan Thompson, head of government affairs for Skyrora, a UK-based small launch vehicle developer. Asked about the Space Summit, he curiously did not mention the launch competition plans announced there, taking a more pessimistic view. “We as a company have tempered our ambitions in terms of number of launches,” he said. The company has projected preforming up a dozen launches a year, “but looking at whether that is realistic, the answer is probably not.”

Others at the conference had other concerns about the competition, including exactly what missions would be included and how many. European launch startups have focused on small launch vehicles, placing up to a ton in low Earth orbit, but some have plans to grow to larger vehicles that might compete more directly with Vega C or even Ariane 6.

The demand for larger vehicles, though, is limited in Europe given the small number of government missions. The agreement at the Space Summit also committed European governments to buying at least four Ariane 6 and three Vega C launches a year.

“We can play with that, at least for small launchers,” Baptiste said of competition. “If we are talking about heavy launchers, I think it will be much more difficult.”

“It cannot be that you have part of the industry having to run 100 meters with a 20-kilo backpack and others which have nothing,” said ArianeGroup’s Godart.

The limited government demand would hinder any competition for larger rockets, noted Marco Fuchs, CEO of OHB, the German aerospace company that is backing small launch vehicle startup Rocket Factory Augsburg. “If you only have four institutional missions, you don’t need ten large rockets in Europe. That’s pretty obvious.”

ArianeGroup, the prime contractor for the Ariane 6, has its own concerns about the proposed competition. “Europe needs to get sorted on how it organizes this competition,” said Pierre Godart, CEO of ArianeGroup Germany. “We have a little bit of time, but not too much.”

He suggested that Europe not simply copy the launch competitions used by the U.S. government. “It’s never successful when we make a one-to-one copy,” he said. “We will have to find our European way forward, which is different from what we had in the past.” He didn’t elaborate, though, on what that “European way” would look like.

Whatever competition that does emerge, he said, needs to treat both incumbents and newcomers the same. “It cannot be that you have part of the industry having to run 100 meters with a 20-kilo backpack and others which have nothing,” he said.

That could include revisiting one of the central tenets of ESA contracting, the concept of geographic return or georeturn. Under georeturn, member states that subscribe to programs are guaranteed contracts in proportion to their contributions.

That approach, critics argue, makes it difficult for current European launch vehicles to be cost competitive, and would be even more difficult to implement in a future launch competition where there are no guarantees what vehicles from what countries would win government contracts for launchers.

“We have to reduce costs. We are ready to simplify as much as possible the complex system in which we live,” said Baptiste, who said that some Ariane 6 suppliers, guaranteed work because of georeturn policies, have increased their prices by up to 60%. “We can get rid of some part of the georeturn, at least for the exploitation of the Ariane 6.”

“I cannot choose my supplier. It is decided,” Godart said, referring to georeturn. “Even if I have suppliers who are not performing, I cannot change them.”

However, there seemed little appetite at the conference for broader changes in georeturn policies, with some officials expressing concerns that, without it, many countries might be reticent to subscribe to ESA programs. “If we want to crash ESA, getting rid of georeturn would be the best way,” said DLR’s Pelzer.

Géraldine Naja, ESA’s director of commercialization, industry, and procurement, acknowledged in a presentation at Space Tech Expo Europe the concerns about georeturn and how it might be applied to future launch competitions, saying only that the agency was looking is how it might “evolve” that policy. “It must be in the direction of good competition and good competitiveness,” she said.

Even with all the uncertainties about how a launch competition might be organized, there was general support for the concept because of the need to revitalize a launch industry that, in Europe, is lagging counterparts in America and China.

“I think Seville has been a great success,” said Sabine von der Recke, a member of the board of OHB who also is on the management team for the German Offshore Spaceport Alliance, a venture developing a sea-based platform for small launch vehicles. She cited both the support for Ariane 6—for which OHB is a major supplier—as well as the proposed future competition.

“Seville was not only a decision on launchers. It will change also the rest of space, because it’s the hardest decision and the most political,” she said.

Meanwhile, many of those who remained through the end of the three-day Space Tech Expo Europe conference found their travel plans from Bremen upended by disruptions to Deutsche Bahn’s schedule caused by a strike. Perhaps space will be an easier transportation challenge to solve.

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