The European Space Agency (Esa) will invest into development of a new low-cost rocket as it faces growing competition from private rocket builders.
With the maiden flight date set for 2020, the Ariane 6 rocket, replacing Esa’s current workhorse launcher Ariane 5, will compete with assertive newcomers including SpaceX.
SpaceX, together with other privately operated American rocket builders, is currently driving competition in the launch market by offering lower prices. The competition is set to get even tougher in the near future as emerging space powers such as China and India invest into technology development to get their share of the global satellite launch market.
At a recently concluded ministerial council in Louxembourg, Esa member states approved a €8bn budget for the Ariane 6 programme to cover the next ten years.
The Ariane 6 proposal was selected following a stalemate between France and Germany, Esa’s two dominant nations, which saw France lobbying for the entirely new Ariane 6 while Germany preferred an upgrade of the existing Ariane 5.
Although both approaches were previously endorsed at a ministerial meeting four years ago, Esa eventually opted to go ahead with only one development to cut cost and increase efficiency.
"At the end of the day, it must turn out to be something which can be competitive on the world market of satellites," Italian Space Agency president Roberto Battiston told Reuters ahead of the meeting.
Ariane 6 will be mostly developed as a joint project between France’s rocket makers Airbus and Safran.
According to French Research Minister Genevieve Fioraso, the programme will safeguard 35,000 jobs across Europe.
“This summit will go down in history as a bold step forward for European Space. The decisions taken today represent a new boost for the launcher industry, the basis for all space activities, and for the overall European space sector,” said Esa’s head of Space Systems François Auque.
According to Esa’s director general Jean-Jacques Dordain the programme will come hand in hand with major changes in the management processes behind Esa’s projects, which will aim to make Esa more efficient in order to be able to maintain its position in the fast-changing sector.
"I used to be a professor of mechanics. I know that where there is movement, there is resistance, and I don't expect the implementation of today's decisions will go without a hitch," Dordain admitted.
According to Esa’s plan, Ariane 6 will take to the sky for the first time in 2020 from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. In the first year of its operations it will perform four flights with the aim to eventually achieve 11 lift-offs per year by 2023.
Esa has also approved further funding for the International Space Station, committing to invest €800m to keep the orbital outpost running, and agreed on an additional financial boost for the ExoMars mission – Esa's first shot to land on Mars scheduled for 2018. The ExoMars project has been battling for survival ever since Nasa withdrew its participation in 2012 following budget cuts.