The Ariane6 is about to go into overdrive. Last week the European Space Agency announced that the upper stage of its planned rocket had arrived at the European Spaceport in French Guiana. That’s what the agency is planning launch the rocket on its maiden flight in the second quarter of 2022.
The milestone came after the launch of its predecessor, Ariane 5 James-Webb-Weltraumteleskop on Christmas day. Ars Technica found that the rocket worked well enough for the telescope to save enough fuel for 20 years. It’s about double the estimate assumed before launch and should give the giant telescope a long lifespan.
Ariane 6 takes this rocket to the next level. The modular design allows the rocket to take light and heavy launches and adapt to the needs of the customer. ESA also expects the launch to be much cheaper.
However, ESA faces stiff competition from SpaceX, which currently operates its semi-reusable Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets to provide launch services. SpaceX is already looking at the fully reusable spacecraft that can lift into space more than ever. Unfortunately, the Ariane family is not reusable.
CEO Elon Musk has criticized Europe’s efforts in the nascent new space race. He continued writing in March 2021 Twitter:
“You’re aiming too low. Only missiles that are fully and quickly reusable will be competitive. Anything else will look like a fabric biplane in the jet age.”
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Here’s what you need to know about how they compare.
Ariane 6 vs. SpaceX: How Much Can It Send to Low Earth Orbit?
The Ariane 6 sends up different amounts depending on the booster configuration. The two-booster version, known as Ariane 62, is capable of delivering 4,500 kg (9,920 pounds) into geostationary transfer orbit or 10,300 kg (22,707 pounds) into low-Earth orbit.
In the configuration with four boosters, known as Ariane 64, the rocket can place payloads of around 11,500 kg (25,353 lb) in geostationary transfer orbit and 20,600 kg (45,415 lb) in low Earth orbit.
In its consumption configuration, the Falcon 9 can launch a similar amount as the Ariane 6 with four boosters. It can send 8,300 kg (18,300 pounds) into geostationary transfer orbit and 22,800 kg (50,265 pounds) into low Earth orbit. The Falcon Heavy adds the ability to launch 63,800 kilograms (140,660 pounds) into low Earth orbit.
The spacecraft is designed to blast these figures out of the water and send 100 tons (220,000 pounds) into low Earth orbit.
Ariane 6 vs. SpaceX: Is it reusable?
In 2014, SpaceX successfully landed a Falcon 9 booster for the first time. This component of the rocket accounts for about three-quarters of the rocket’s total price, according to Musk. As of 2021, SpaceX has successfully recovered 30 boosters in one year. SpaceX is also restoring the boosters that were used with the Falcon Heavy rocket.
The company has also begun trying to recover the protective shroud that protects the satellite during launch. SpaceX successfully recovered a fairing for the first time in 2019 and successfully 13 in 2021.
The upcoming spaceship should take this to the next level. SpaceX designed the rocket to be fully reusable, meaning the booster and ship can return to Earth for reuse after a flight.
Ariane 6 is not reusable. It dates back to a design decision made in 2014 when the space agency decided to stick with the consumable option. France’s Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, admitted at a 2020 Conference that “2014 was a fork in the road and we didn’t go down the right path”.
“We should have gone for the reusable launch vehicle,” Le Maire said. “We should have had that boldness.”
Ariane 6 vs. SpaceX: how much will it cost to launch?
In January 2021, Politically reported that Ariane 6 could launch for as little as $77 million. That’s a steep discount off the $177 million price tag for Ariane 5.
SpaceX’s website previously put the cost of launching Falcon 9 at $62 million. but CNBC found in 2020 that United States Air Force contracts paid around $95 million per Falcon 9 launch. SpaceX estimated the cost of each launch to be around $30 million each.
In November 2019, Musk suggested that a spacecraft could launch for around $2 million each. When it gets to that price point, it’s going to be impressively competitive.
Ariane 6 vs. SpaceX: where do they launch?
Like its predecessor, Ariane 6 will be launched from Europe’s spaceport, which is about 10 miles from the city of Kourou in French Guiana.
SpaceX launched the Falcon 9 from three locations:
- Floridas Space Launch Complex 40 in Cape Canaveral
- Floridas Launch Complex 39A im Kennedy Space Center
- Kaliforniens Space Launch Complex 4E auf der Vandenberg Space Force Base
SpaceX plans to use both the existing 39A pad (with modifications) and a new pad in Texas for the spaceship. The starbase facility currently houses SpaceX’s development operations.
In the longer term, Musk has also suggested that SpaceX could build Ocean Spaceports Enable point-to-point travel around Earth by spaceship.
Ariane 6 vs. SpaceX: Can it power missions to Mars?
ESA plans to send the Earth Return Orbiter mission to Mars in 2026 aboard an Ariane 6. The mission, which will use the Ariane 64 configuration, will be the final part of a multi-phase plan to sample Mars:
- NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, which deployed the Perseverance rover in July 2020, collects samples in canisters
- The Sample Retriever lander mission will land near the Mars 2020 site, using an ESA rover to collect the samples and a Mars Ascent Vehicle to return the samples to space
- the Earth Return Orbiter will capture the container in orbit around Mars, about the size of a basketball
ESA developed the Astris Kick Stage to better support Ariane 6 missions to Mars. The optional extra helps deliver payloads to their final orbital positions.
SpaceX claims the Falcon 9 can send 4,020 kg (8,860 pounds) to Mars. The company also claims that the Falcon Heavy can send 16,800 kilograms (37,040 pounds) to Mars. The latter rocket sent Musk’s red Tesla Roadster on a tour towards Mars in 2018.
Starship aims to take all of this to the next level. The stainless steel rocket is expected to send the first humans to Mars thanks to the use of liquid oxygen and methane as fuel. That means astronauts can fly to Mars, refuel with the planet’s resources, and either fly home or venture further out.
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