European countries boost funding for Ariane 6 rocket programme

France, Germany and Italy struck a deal on Monday to pump €340mn a year more into the troubled Ariane 6 heavy-lift rocket programme, in a bid to ensure the future of Europe’s sovereign access to space.

As part of the long-awaited tripartite agreement, Europe’s approach to commissioning launch services will open up to competition, in a fundamental shift that will put pressure on Airbus and Safran, the joint owners of ArianeGroup.

Italy has also opted to withdraw its Vega-C medium-lift rocket from ArianeGroup’s marketing arm, Arianespace. Vega-C will eventually be operated by Italian group Avio.

The agreement underscores Europe’s anxiety to close the gap in low-cost launch capacity with Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the US, which is dominating the race to exploit the rapidly developing commercial space economy.

In a decision that has been widely criticised since the programme was launched in 2014, Ariane 6 was not designed to be reusable, in order to preserve jobs.

Bruno Le Maire, French finance minister, said the three-way deal “opened a new era for European launch. It will allow Europe to continue to play a role as a great space power.”

The three countries have agreed to provide €340mn a year in extra funding to cover the costs of flights 16 to 42 of Ariane 6, which are expected to launch between 2027 and 2029-30.

The maiden flight is set for next year, but it is running some four years behind schedule. The delays have left Europe with no sovereign launch capability.

Ariane 5 made its last flight in July, while the new Vega-C medium-lift rocket was grounded after a flight failure late last year. Europe stopped using Russia’s Soyuz rocket after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

Europe has had to book flights on SpaceX vehicles for next year’s planned launch of satellites into its Galileo navigation system.

The decision to give extra funding to Ariane 6 was hard won. Le Maire said it had come only after months of discussion and negotiation. France and Germany in particular have been at odds over funding for Ariane 6, which is expected to be more expensive than SpaceX’s Falcon 9. 

Video: Moon rush: the launch of a lunar economy | FT Film

France funds 55 per cent of the Ariane 6 programme and will continue to assume that proportion of the extra funding, Le Maire said.

Josef Aschbacher, director-general of the European Space Agency, hailed the progress on Ariane 6 as an important step towards solving the “crisis” in European access to space. Europe was on the brink of a “historic moment” in space transportation as it moved to a more competitive model for the development of launchers, he added.

He said he hoped to be able to announce a date for Ariane 6’s inaugural flight after a test later this month. “We need to get Ariane 6 on to the launch pad as soon as possible.”