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ESA signs contract for Ariane 5 rocket enhancements

Posted: December 21, 2009

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The European Space Agency has awarded a contract to the maker of the Ariane 5 rocket for early development of a new upper stage to increase the launcher's capacity.

The Vinci engine. Credit: EADS Astrium
The contract covers the development of a more powerful version of the rocket with a new upper stage and upgraded avionics and software. The enhancements are part of the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution program.

Astrium says the contract is worth more than $200 million over the next two years.

The upper stage will be powered by a new Vinci engine capable of restarting several times to optimize communications satellite launches to geosynchronous transfer orbit. Officials say the new Ariane 5 configuration could be in commercial service by 2017.

The Ariane 5 rocket has flown 49 times since an ill-fated debut launch in 1996, accumulating a record of 35 straight successes since 2003. Earlier versions of the Ariane have been operational since 1979.

"This contract marks a new era for Astrium," said Alain Charmeau, CEO of Astrium Space Transportation. "It's a strong vote of confidence in our abilities that, moreover, comes just as we are about to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the very first Ariane launch on (Dec. 24, 1979). We are all set for another 30 years or more of technological advancements and market success."

The Vinci would replace the HM7B upper stage engine now flying on the Ariane 5 ECA rocket configuration. The HM7B engine is based on the propulsion system of the Ariane 4 rocket family.

The cryogenic Vinci engine would permit the Ariane 5 rocket to deliver 12 metric tons -- nearly 26,500 pounds -- to geosynchronous transfer orbit. The Ariane 5 ECA's capacity to the same orbit today is 10 metric tons, or about 22,000 pounds.

Arianespace, the rocket's commercial operator, currently launches two communications satellites at a time on the Ariane 5.

The Vinci could also allow the Ariane 5 to deliver cargo directly into geosynchronous orbit, reducing the fuel needed by satellites and extending their useful lives.

Originally scheduled for a maiden flight in 2006, the Vinci engine development program was slowed in 2005 after budget cuts.

ESA is in charge of funding major European launcher development programs and oversees the partnership with Arianespace for commercial flights. The agency is currently evaluating the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution program and a new launcher to replace the workhorse rocket after 2020.

The ESA Ministerial Council will consider both programs at a meeting next fall.

"We are giving contracts to industry now that we are at the maturation of the project in time for the next Ministerial to make the decision if we move ahead with the evolution of Ariane or not, depending on the situation and the maturity of the technologies," said Antonio Fabrizi, ESA's director of launchers.

The council could decide whether to upgrade the Ariane 5 or focus on development of new vehicle, called the Next-Generation Launcher.

"At the next Ministerial meeting, we shall have to decide on the evolution of Ariane and on the longer term new family of European launchers," Fabrizi said in an October interview.

According to Fabrizi, ESA may look toward a smaller alternative to the Ariane 5 that is better equipped to launch the agency's institutional missions. Only the largest ESA spacecraft launch on the Ariane 5 because of its size.