Europe's Ariane Rocket Faces Challenge from SpaceX's Falcon

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The BBC is reporting that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has stated that the Ariane 5, the current model of the Ariane family of launch vehicles, "has no chance" due to the prices he is able to quote for his company's Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

Falcon new competitor for the Ariane

While the Falcon 9 has launched just four times, is has a backlog of about 40 customers waiting for payloads to be lofted into space on the launch vehicle, according to the BBC. While the last flight of the Falcon 9 experienced a failure of one of its engines, the price per launch quoted by the company, $54 million, makes it a very attractive alternative as a commercial launch vehicle. The Falcon 9 can launch 29,000 pounds to low Earth orbit and 10,692 pounds to a geosynchronous transfer orbit. While the Ariane 5 can carry more mass, the equivalent of two communications satellites at a time, it is considerably pricier, even with European subsidies.

Falcon Heavy provides capabilities that no commercial launcher can match

The Falcon Heavy, when it becomes operational, will give SpaceX launch capabilities that no other commercial company can match. It will be able to loft 117,000 pounds to low Earth orbit and 26,460 pounds to a geosynchronous transfer orbit. The price quoted for up to 6.4 tons to GTO is $83 million and $128 million for greater than 6.4 tons to GTO.

Europe struggles to respond

The Parabolic Arc blog suggests that the European partners in Arianespace are divided over how to respond to the SpaceX challenge. Germany favors upgrading the current Ariane 5 to the Ariane 5 ME that would expand the payload capacity of the rocket to accommodate the growing size of commercial satellites. France, however, favors the development of the Ariane 6, a modular rocket that can be adapted to a variety of payload sizes and masses. The decision is due to be hashed out at a meeting to take place in Naples, Italy, on Nov. 20-21 when the long-term budget for the European Space Agency is to be discussed.

Reliability and price questions for the Falcon

In the meantime, according to the BBC, the Europeans are attempting to cast doubt on the long-term reliability and price of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. They doubt that SpaceX can maintain reliability and low prices once the launch rate for the Falcon rockets ramps up to accommodate its customers. Musk, on the other hand, suggests that a higher flight rate can only be a plus, since it gives the company opportunities to detect and correct any latent issues that the Falcon might have.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.

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