05 March 2014
Ariane 5ME (Midlife Evolution) is a proposed European solid- and liquid-fueled, heavy-lift expendable launch vehicle. It was originally known as the Ariane 5ECB (Evolution Cryotechnique type B). The vehicle is being designed as an upgrade to the Ariane 5ECA rocket and intended as a bridge to the next-generation Ariane 6, which is scheduled to enter service in 2021. Plans call for the first qualification flight of the Ariane 5ME in mid-2018. The designated launch site is the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana.
The Ariane 5ME has been under development for more than a decade now. Initially, the vehicle was designated the Ariane 5ECB and was expected to begin flying by 2006. But due to poor market conditions, ESA opted to cancel the program in 2003. By the second half of the last decade, the world launch services market had improved considerably and ESA ministers began to rethink the idea of an upgrade effort. At an ESA Council meeting in November 2012, ministers agreed to fund the Ariane 5ME, along with investments in detailed definition studies for the Ariane 6. On April 10, 2012, ESA awarded Astrium Space Transportation a €112 million contract to develop the Ariane 5ME. The contract (€108 million) was signed on January 30, 2013.
The Ariane 5ME will become the next workhorse launcher for Arianespace, taking over fully from the extremely successful Ariane 5ECA by 2019-2020. While the vehicle is planned for initial flights in 2018, there will obviously be a one- or two-year transition period. Thus far, the vehicle's development appears to be progressing on schedule. Not too long ago, an expert panel consisting of representatives of ESA and the French and German space agencies, as well as industry people, reviewed the program, and they reported that all of its technical and planning milestones, as well as cost goals, were on track. In fact, the panel noted that the Ariane 5ME will surpass its goal of being able to launching 11,500 kg to GTO by about 1,000 kg, thus allowing the vehicle to continue its predecessor's tradition of launching dual payloads and providing more flexibility in accommodating anticipated additional growth in the size of commercial communications satellites.
This is not a significantly different vehicle from the Ariane SECA, and so there's no reason to expect any major hardware development setbacks. While the Ariane 5ME will clearly provide a significant increase in launch capacity and a noticeable de-crease in launch costs, these achievements will be gained primarily through a redesigned second stage, featuring the more powerful Vinci cryogenic engine and a longer payload fairing which will be able to house larger satellites. But the main advantage comes from the additional flexibility provided by the Vinci engine's re-ignition capabilities, which will allow the Ariane 5ME to deploy satellites to higher GTO and supersynchronous orbits, thereby reducing the amount of fuel satellites must carry to reach their target geostationary orbits. This represents cost savings to the launch customers, and thus a real marketing advantage for the Ariane 5ME. The Vinci engine, designed and built by Snecma, will be capable of restarting up to five times, making possible more complex missions such as direct deployment to geostationary. It replaces the HM7B engine, also designed and built by Snecma. So, there is continuity.
About the only thing that might stand in the way of meeting the target year launch time-frame would be money. ESA still needs about $1.35 billion to complete development of the Ariane 5ME, and these funds are now competing with funds ESA is seeking to continue with development of the Ariane 6. These are two very expensive programs the Europeans have taken on simultaneously. Our sense, though, is that the Ariane 5ME is too far along to be cancelled. If ESA budgets run short, then the more likely scenario is that the Ariane 6 program would be stretched-out.