Safran-Airbus Group launcher activities agreement

On June 16, 2014, Airbus Group and Safran announced the creation of a 50-50 joint-venture consolidating their respective launch vehicle operations. We asked Jean-Lin Fournereaux, Safran Vice President, Space, to share his insights on this strategic alliance between two major European players in this industry.

How would you describe Airbus Group and Safran's strategy in the launch vehicle sector?

The global space industry is currently undergoing major changes. In the United States, in particular, massive investments are being made and new players are emerging as major competitors, especially SpaceX and Orbital ATK for launchers. In general, the space industry is extending its reach to encompass a broader variety of customers, as shown by growing interest in lower cost launchers from companies like Google and Yahoo. For example, in April, Google purchased the company Titan Aerospace, which is developing solar-powered drones that could replace satellites for certain functions, such as mapping the planet.
Given this new situation, the European space agency must become more agile, and move towards more integrated structures. Airbus and Safran have the same vision in this area, namely to develop lower-cost, more modular launchers.

How will this agreement impact our organization?

Initially, Airbus Group and Safran plan to create a program joint venture, consolidating their civil program contracts and main stakes in commercial launcher programs. The two partners' industrial assets will eventually be transferred to create a full-fledged, jointly-owned new company that is a world leader. The creation of the joint venture will be subject to all consultation procedures and must receive the requisite approvals. After this has been completed, we will know the structure and size of the new company in greater detail.

What do Airbus Group and Safran recommend for Europe's future Ariane 6 launcher?

We're ready to propose to the European Space Agency (ESA) two versions of this launcher, called Ariane 6.1 and 6.2. Each of these versions will comprise a solid-propellant first stage, with two P145 boosters, and a new central stage derived from the current stage and using the Vulcain 2 cryogenic engine developed by Snecma, at optimized cost. The difference between the two versions is in the upper stage: Ariane 6.1 will be based on the Vinci engine (also developed by Snecma), as on the Ariane 5 ME (Midlife Evolution), while the Ariane 6.2 upper stage would be powered by an Aestus engine (developed by Airbus Defence and Space, formerly Astrium), as on the Ariane 5ES*.
Ariane 6.1 would be able to boost up to 8.5 metric tons into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), making it possible to launch two satellites that weigh up to four metric tons and use electric propulsion – reflecting a major market trend over the past two years. Ariane 6.2 would be intended mainly for smaller satellites, especially those launched by governments.
We believe that this configuration would reduce the development efforts needed for Ariane 6, while still meeting the cost and performance objectives stipulated by ESA. Furthermore, it would provide the modularity requested by customers, and would also offer synergies with the entire family of European launchers, including Vega.

What is the Ariane 6 road map for the coming years?

Even before Ariane 6, ESA's road map plans for Ariane 5 ME (Midlife Evolution) to enter service in 2017. The configuration of Ariane 6 still has to be finalized by the ESA ministerial-level meeting, slated for this coming December. However, the preliminary road map already provides for a five-year development period, and an initial launch at the end of 2019. This hypothesis is feasible, because most of the subsystems for this future launcher, in the configuration we recommend, can be produced using existing industrial facilities – including the Ariane 5 launch pad. The two new aspects are the adaptation of the main cryogenic stage and the P145 boosters, which are being studied by the manufacturers and ESA since last year.

* Ariane 5ES: the Ariane 5 version used to send the ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) into low Earth orbit to ferry supplies to the International Space Station.