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.
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.
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.