Who should take responsibility for Ariane 6 delay?
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Who should take responsibility for Ariane 6 delay?
I watched the Ariane 6 update briefing last week and listened to top ESA, Arianespace, ArianeGroup, and CNES officials outline the current status of the vehicle. When the briefing ended, I was baffled and, if I’m honest, angry. There was no recognition of how historic the delay was or an admission that some if not all present had let Europe down. And yes, that may be somewhat hyperbolic of me to say, but considering much of this project is taxpayer-funded, I don’t see why we can’t expect more from the people we’ve entrusted billions of euros to.
Before I get to the “reasons” that were given during the update as to why the maiden Ariane 6 flight has been pushed to Q4 2023, I want to start with a little background to frame what is to come.
In late 2018, ArianeGroup revealed that it would shed 2,300 jobs by 2022 through retirements and the expiration of short-term contracts. In a statement to SpaceNews, the company explained that the move was the result of Ariane 6 reaching the end of its development and “the need to increase competitiveness in the European rocket launch business." Reading between the lines, they appear to have reduced the workforce responsible for the Ariane 6 vehicle’s development to increase profits. It’s unclear how many of these 2,300 jobs were shed as the maiden flight of Ariane 6 was pushed back again and again.
In April 2019, ESA agreed to a deal with ArianeGroup to push Ariane 6 production into full swing. This agreement was reached after the number of expected government missions fell short of what was agreed upon early on in the programme. Essentially, the company declined to push ahead with Ariane 6 production until they had guaranteed business from the governments of Europe. This is hard to swallow considering the fact that those same governments are funding the development of Ariane 6 to the tune of 4 billion euros! It's also interesting to note that at this time, the maiden launch of Ariane 6 was slated for July 2020.
Now that we’ve got that little bit of background out of the way, let’s examine the reasons the Ariane 6 update panel gave more closely.
In early 2020 the pandemic hit the world and although some of the operations ESA, CNES, and ArianeGroup conduct were determined to be critical, many others were not. Here's where the first two of the excuses utilized in the Ariane 6 update briefing come into play, specifically the delay caused by the development of the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) and the catchall covid excuse.
The APU is a component of the Ariane 6 upper stage that is utilized to pressurize tanks, enabling the Vinci engine to be restarted multiple times. In Ariane 5 this was accomplished with helium-filled spheres.
In a November 2021 interview with SpaceNews, ArianeGroup civil program manager Franck Huiban explained that the APU was "not part of the initial plan" but that it was pursued after the pandemic hit. When Jason Rainbow insinuated that the pandemic had given ArianeGroup "more time to implement new features," Huiban quickly corrected himself, stating that "it's more complex than that." This, for me, is a staggering admission. Instead of ensuring that Ariane 6 would be ready to fly as soon as possible and waiting to implement the APU upgrade, the decision to go ahead with the upgrade put Europe's independent access to space at risk.
What’s even more infuriating about this is that in July 2021, ArianeGroup received a €90 million contract from ESA to develop the Astris space tug for Ariane 6. The stage is expected to become operational in 2024 and will, from what I understand, take much of the heavy lifting away from the Ariane 6 upper stage and its Vinci engine during complex multi-payload deployments.
Even if, for the sake of argument, we discount all of that, the APU was still certified for flight back in May 2021. Sure, this may have caused previous delays, but how is it still being used as an excuse when Arianespace managing director Vivian Quenet stated that the maiden flight of Ariane 6 would occur “towards the end of the year ” more than 18 months after the APU was certified for flight?
The next excuse in the timeline is the development of the “cryogenic arms”. These two mechanical arms are attached to the upper end of the Ariane 6 launch mast and support the upper umbilicals. Following liftoff, these arms pivot away to avoid hitting the rocket's boosters.
In October 2021, ESA revealed that both cryogenic arms had been successfully attached to the mast. By April 2022 testing of the masts had begun with a stand-in Ariane 6 core stage. Again, this is before than June 1 confirmation from the Arianespace MD that ArianeGroup was targeting a late 2022 maiden flight, which means it was factored into that prediction. Either that or an extremely high-placed employee of Arianespace who was selected to speak on the company’s behalf was completely misinformed, which I have a hard time believing. The lack of an Ariane 6 core stage present during the testing of the cryogenic arms brings me to the next excuse given.
The delayed shipment of the combined test modules was another element that was stated to be a factor in pushing the maiden Ariane 6 launch date to Q4 2023. Let’s get this one out of the way quickly. The Ariane 6 core and upper stages for the combined test arrived in French Guiana in January 2022. And by now you know the drill - that date is BEFORE Quenet’s late 2022 maiden launch target.
The final excuse given was upper stage testing in Lampoldshausen. The stage was sent to Lampoldshausen in late January 2021 and installed on its custom-built P5.2 test bench in late February 2021. In a press release published at the time, ArianeGroup stated that all four of the upper stage hot fire tests would be completed by Q2 2021. However, as I’m sure you’re aware, the first hot fire test of the upper stage was only just completed in October 2022. So, why the delay?
If you remember, the Ariane 6 APU was only certified for flight in May 2021. Now, I have no confirmation of this, but the timeline sure does line up. It looks a lot like the upper stage hot fire tests were delayed to install an APU, so the then-upgraded stage could be tested are certified for flight. And why would they do this? Again I’m speculating, but in August 2019 SpaceX announced the introduction of its rideshare service and boy did those prices put a lot of pressure on launch vehicle operators.
Again, even if we discount all of this, the upper stage hot fire tests were originally expected to take no longer than four months. So, how is the upper stage test campaign responsible for this latest delay? If ArianeGroup were waiting until the campaign’s completion to start building the Ariane 6 upper stage flight model, that would be one thing. However, the company has already confirmed that not only the first upper stage but as many as three Ariane 6 upper stages are currently in various stages of being built.
The Tiger Team
During the Ariane 6 update briefing, ESA director general Josef Aschbacher explained that he had ordered an external review of the progress of Ariane 6 in May 2022. This team, which was referred to as the “Tiger Team”, included members from ESA, ArianeGroup, and CNES who worked closely with ArianeGroup at its Les Mureaux facility. Aschbacher referred to the group as a “streamline management team” that worked closely with ArianeGroup project teams involved in the development of the launcher to “reinforce the activities.”
On June 1, as I stated before, Arianespace managing director Vivian Quenet tells Asia Satellite Business Week attendees that Ariane 6 will be debuted “towards the end of the year .”
Less than two weeks later, on 13 June, director general Aschbacher revealed during a BBC HardTalk interview that the maiden Ariane 6 flight would be “sometime next year .” At the time, I thought it was strange that Aschbacher chose that forum to make those remarks. In hindsight, it looks a lot like the director general had early results from his Tiger Team on what was really happening behind the scenes at ArianeGroup and Quenet’s remarks forced his hand. Although, let me stress again that this is speculation based on what would otherwise be a staggeringly coincidental order of events.
Hilariously, Quenet spoke at an October 19 panel discussion at the APSCC Satellite Conference & Exhibition and said that "Ariane 6 which was supposed to launch in 2022 is now launching in 2023." When pressed he gave no details simply saying "the only thing I can say is it's going to start in 2023."
How much is it going to cost?
The exact cost of delaying the maiden flight of Ariane 6 to Q4 2023 was not discussed or even alluded to in the initial remarks of the Ariane 6 update briefing. It wasn’t until a pair of questions from reporters during the Q&A section that the potential cost was examined.
Both questions were answered by ESA director of space transportation Daniel Neuenschwander. To answer the first, he talked about the transition program that will manage the ramp-up of Ariane 6 production and operation following the first flight. According to Neuenschwander this process will require €600 million with two-thirds of that amount already being secured. The remaining €200 million will be requested at this year's ESA ministerial level council meeting in Paris towards the end of the year.
When pushed to give a specific amount for the launcher itself by SpaceIntelReport’s Peter de Selding, Neuenschwander revealed that an additional €150 million will be required for the development of Ariane 6. This pushes the total cost from just below €4 billion to just over.
Hot potato or no potato?
I asked both ESA and ArianeGroup what specifically had led to this latest delay that pushed the maiden flight of Ariane 6 to late 2023. Both press teams referred me to the replay of the Ariane 6 update briefing, telling me that the question had been addressed. I watched the replay again just to make sure I wasn’t a complete moron, which is not impossible. Unsurprisingly, I hadn’t missed anything.
In fact, the final question of the Q&A section of the update was from SpaceIntelReport’s Peter de Selding, who asked the panel directly what NEW issues had arisen over the last few months that necessitated this additional delay. No specific answers were given. It was an astonishing obfuscation of responsibility by all in attendance.
When I asked ArianeGroup directly if the company felt that it should take responsibility and apologize for the delay and the impact it would have on Europe’s access to space, I was met with bemusement. The company’s press contract told me that “Ariane 6 is an ESA program” and ArianeGroup is merely in charge of the launch system. And instead of being apologetic or remorseful, AraineGroup thought that ““Team Europe” [yup, they put it in inverted commas for some reason] was, in fact, quite proud” of their efforts with the recent stacking and upper stage hot fire milestones. Finally, I was told that they were “very surprised” at my insinuation that the company takes responsibility for the delays. I did not ask that ArianeGroup take financial responsibility for the delay, merely that they stand up and accept that the buck stops at their door. This, apparently, was ridiculous of me to assume.
Feeling like I was taking crazy pills at this point, I wondered what, if any, historical precedent existed that would forgive the Ariane 6 delays.
Overlap ensures access
Ariane 1 was the first European launch vehicle. Sure, there was Diamant, but that was developed, built, and launched by France and was not a European effort. There was also the European Launcher Development Organisation and its Europa launch vehicle, but I think the less said about that disaster, the better. Ariane 1 really is the genesis and its maiden launch in December 1979 the start of Europe’s spaceflight efforts.
The first Ariane 1 flight was followed by the first Ariane 3 flight in 1984. Following the introduction of the new vehicle, an additional two Ariane 1 flights were flown. By the time Ariane 1 was retired in 1986, a total of five Ariane 3 flights had been flown.
Ariane 2 was first flown in 1986. Yes, Ariane 3 came before Ariane 2, that’s a whole other story. Following the introduction of Ariane 2, an additional five Ariane 3 missions were flown. In fact, Ariane 2 was retired in 1989 which was a few months before Ariane 3 was retired that same year.
Then we get to the mighty Ariane 4, which was first flown in 1988. After its introduction, an additional six Ariane 2 and Ariane 3 missions were flown. When both vehicles were retired, Ariane 4 had already completed four flights.
Finally, we get ESA’s current vehicle, Ariane 5. The first two Ariane 5 missions were launched in 1996 and 1997. The first was a failure and the second a partial failure, which illustrates the need for overlap, but let's be generous and discount those flights altogether. The first successful Ariane 5 mission was launched in 1998. After its introduction, approximately 35 Ariane 4 missions were launched and when it was retired in 2003, around 12 Ariane 5 missions had already been launched. I say approximately and around because my attention drifted when counting them, illustrating how many overlapping missions there were.
So, the nearest equivalent to Ariane 6 had a total of 12 missions in its manifest before its predecessor was retired. Ariane 6 will have zero! This is historically bad transition planning from ESA and ArianeGroup, something that has never been addressed or even mentioned.
A late 2023 debut would have a significant impact on Europe’s independent access to space. In a rare moment of frankness during the Ariane 6 update briefing, director general Aschbacher seemed to agree with this outlook, stating “what is at stake here is European independent access to space.”
What’s worse is that the Q4 2023 target seems still, somehow, to be ambitious. According to Aschbacher hitting that target will be contingent on the completion of the upper stage hot fire test campaign, the commencement of hot fire testing of the core stage as part of the combined test campaign, and kicking off the launch system qualification review all by Q1 2023.
In response to a question during the briefing, ArianeGroup CEO André-Hubert Roussel stated “it is a tight schedule nevertheless, there is some margin.” If there is margin, I do not see it. My prediction, which is not all that original, is that a late 2023 flight is unlikely, and we’re probably going to have to wait until 2024 for a maiden flight.
I don’t know what I expected to find when I started down this rabbit hole. I think that I hoped that examining the reasons that the panel had given more closely would prove how significant they had been and how many were out of the control of ESA, ArianeGroup, and CNES. That’s not what I discovered, though. And I understand bad decisions, I really do. But as a father who is trying to teach my daughter to accept responsibility for her actions, I am so very disappointed with how little of that attribute was shown by the adults in the room during the Ariane 6 update briefing last week.
I really do think there needs to be far more transparency with how these large projects are run. If I were to make one suggestion to director general Aschbacher, it would be that he establish an ESA equivalent to the NASA Office of Inspector General. Have an independent and impartial party examine these large projects and publically publish reports that ensure transparency of spending. Companies should not be allowed to hide behind spin given by a representative to reporters during 15-minute Q&A sessions held once a year.
Hey man, can I bum a ride? - ESA director general Josef Aschbacher announced that the agency's Euclid and Hera missions will be launched aboard SpaceX Falcon 9 missions in 2023 and 2024 respectively. EarthCARE will be launched aboard an Avio-built Arianespace-managed Vega C in 2024. The decision was necessitated due to Europe's decision to no longer utilize Russian Soyuz rockets and the delay of the maiden flight of Ariane 6.
The UK wants a Space Minster - The UK Defence Committee publish its "Defence Space: through adversity to the stars?" report. The report found the country's progress in the space domain “unacceptable” and “lagging behind Italy.” In order to address these shortcomings, the Committee called for a Minister for Space to be appointed within the Cabinet Office. The Minster of Space would provide clear, centralised direction and accountability in progressing the UK’s civil and defence ambitions in space.
Up, up and away! - The suborbital DLR MAPHEUS 12 mission was launched from the Esrange Space Center in Sweden. The rocket carried several experiments to an altitude of 250 kilometres for a total of around six minutes of weightlessness. One of the experiments aboard the rocket tested the effects of microgravity on a marine invertebrate, with the aim of revealing insights into the origins of cancer. The experiments were successfully recovered after the flight.
IT’S AN AEROSPIKE! - Spanish launch startup Pangea Aerospace revealed that it had completed the longest hot fire test of its aerospike engine. The test lasted more than two minutes and included mixture ratio modulation and thrust modulation. Pangea is developing its 300 kN methalox ARCOS aerospike engine that it will utilize aboard its Meso rocket in addition to offering it as a propulsion solution for other launch vehicles.
A spaceplane with a parachute - German spaceplane startup POLARIS announced that it has successfully tested its rescue parachute. The test involved a dummy mass equipped with sensors and data recording equipment that was dropped out of a helicopter. The next flight demonstrator of POLARIS will be equipped with the rescue parachute which will be deployed in case of a severe emergency, such as loss of vehicle control, or if a safe runway landing can no longer be guaranteed. The inclusion of this system will allow Polaris to operate the flight demonstrator over so-called “sparsely populated areas”, which, according to the company, "greatly simplifies flight testing."
A fully-funded maiden flight - UK-based launch startup Orbex announced the successful closing of a £40.4 million (approximately €46.5 million) Series C funding round. The funding round was led by the Scottish National Investment Bank and included contributions from existing investors BGF, Heartcore Captial, High-Tech Gründerfonds, and Octopus Ventures, and new investors Jacobs, The Danish Green Future Fund, Verve Ventures, and British entrepreneurs Phillip and James Chambers. The new funding will be utilized to scale up its resources as the company prepares for the maiden flight of its two-stage Prime launch vehicle in 2023. It will also support future projects, the nature of which the company did not elaborate on.
Mo' money, mo space projects - The European Commission announced the results of its Horizon Europe Space-related Calls for 2021 to 2022. The €200 million in funding was split among 49 projects in nine different categories. The largest share of the funding was awarded to eight projects under the Evolution of Copernicus Services category, totaling €50.2 million. The largest single project award was for quantum technologies for space gravimetry (the measurement of the strength of a gravitational field) which received €17 million.
Tricksy little space debris - UK-based space situation awareness startup ODIN Space has signed an agreement with Italian space logistics company D-Orbit. The agreement will see ODIN's first tech demo payload carried aboard a D-Orbit ION orbital transfer vehicle. The payload will test ODIN's ability to map lethal sub-centimetre debris, a category of space debris that is invisible to standard tracking methods. The flight is currently scheduled for Q2 2023.
Will I get better signal on the Tube? - The UK Space Agency (UKSA) published a call for support for the ESA Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems Partnership Programme. According to the project's description, UKSA is seeking industrial partners for major projects in satellite communications through a competitive call opening in October 2022, with £15 million of funding available. The ESA Partnership Programme was introduced to provide the satellite communication industry with the right environment to introduce innovative space-based solutions into the commercial market.
Top of the morning to you planet Earth - Ireland’s Tánaiste (deputy head of the government of Ireland) Leo Varadkar and Minister for Business, Employment, and Retail Damien English met with staff and students from the University College Dublin for the signing of an Exchange of Letters with ESA to facilitate the launch of Ireland’s first satellite. EIRSAT-1 is designed to study gamma-ray bursts, analyze the performance of novel surface treatments, and test the capability of an attitude control algorithm that could serve as an alternative to standard attitude determination and control methods.
Climate change cop in space - Italian space logistics company D-Orbit was selected to carry the ALISO-1 satellite aboard the company's ION space tug. ALISO-1 is a 6U cubesat built by the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias in Spain. The satellite will capture medium to high resolution SWIR (Short-Wave Infrared) imagery for environmental studies on desertification, oil spills, and wildfire impact.
It’s like rocket fuel but greener - Spanish launch startup PLD Space has signed an agreement with Spanish energy company Repsol to develop new renewable fuels that will be used aboard the company's Miura launch vehicles. The pair aim to reduce the carbon footprint of the Miura launch vehicles by up to 90%.
Fully stacked and nowhere to go - The first fully stacked prototype of an ArianeGroup Ariane 6 launch vehicle was unveiled at the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana. This prototype will be utilized for the combined test campaign that will include the first hot fire test of the rocket's core stage. The first Ariane 6 flight model is currently being completed at ArianeGroup’s production sites in Bremen and Les Mureaux. It is expected to be shipped to the launch site in late 2022 or early 2023.
The satellite of the future - The ESA OneSat family of geostationary software-defined telecoms satellites has successfully passed its first qualification review. The line of satellites was developed under the ESA Novacom Partnership Project in collaboration with CNES, the UK Space Agency, satellite manufacturer Airbus and many suppliers from eight ESA member states. The first part of the OneSat qualification review successfully demonstrated the maturity of the various developments to safely proceed toward the start of satellite integration activities.
It’s like a little baby company - Swiss space tech company Beyond Gravity has accepted four startups into its Launchpad internal incubator programme. The four companies are Modulos, RevoAI, Rimon, and Gate Space. Over the next 8 weeks, the four nominated companies will conceptualize different use cases and test new approaches.
Andrew Parsonson has been reporting on space and spaceflight for over five years. He has contributed to SpaceNews and, most recently, the daily Payload newsletter. In late 2021 he launched European Spaceflight as a way to promote the continent's excellence in space. This newsletter is an extension of that mission.
If you’d like to get in touch to discuss European space or anything really, you can connect with Andrew on Twitter or send me an email to email@example.com.