The European Space Agency is struggling to remain in the modern-day space race, approving funding for a new Ariane rocket. The CEO of European aerospace giant Airbus is encouraging his designers to alter their approach, in order to counter recent advances by private companies like SpaceX, based in the United States.
The Ariane 6 is now set for further production, as the 20 nations of the European Space Agency agreed to develop the new booster, overcoming objections from German negotiators, who had insisted on upgrades to the current Ariane 5.
SpaceX, founded in 2002 by technology innovator Elon Musk, has placed significant pressure on European and other national space programs by offering low-cost satellite launches. Many corporate leaders working with the ESA are calling for a break from the bureaucratic systems currently in place, managing cooperation between government and private researchers in Europe. Programs managed in Europe require approval and input from many layers of public agencies in the continent, as well as from member nations.
"A departure from current ways of working is a precondition for future competitiveness of the European space business," Tom Enders, chief executive of Airbus Group, said.
The Airbus Group recently announced a new agreement with Safran, a designer of rocket engines, in an effort to preserve the viability of the Ariane launch vehicle.
Two years ago, the ESA split funding between developing the new booster and upgrading the current Ariane 5 lift vehicle.
Currently, lifting a vehicle to orbit aboard an Ariane 5 costs around $160 million. The new Ariane 6 will be able to lift that same payload to space for between 87 and 112 million dollars. SpaceX charges just 60 million dollars for an identical job.
"To streamline the industrial organisation, reduce the number of interfaces and thus reduce the costs and risks to be borne by Member States in development and exploitation, Airbus Space & Defence and Safran, the two largest European industrial actors in launchers, intend to create a joint venture to lead the development and production of the future European launch system," ESA officials wrote on a Web page detailing the Ariane 6.
The Philae lander recently became the first vehicle to successfully make a soft landing on the surface of a comet, but harpoons meant to lock the craft to the icy body failed, and the spacecraft bounced into a dark crevice.
Planners from the ESA will decide if the space agency will continue participating in operations aboard the International Space Station (ISS) past the year 2020. The United States announced American activities aboard the ISS would continue until at least 2025. Russia is currently planning on developing its own orbiting outpost, as well as participating in a joint mission to Mars with Europe.
The European Space Agency was founded in 1975, in a drive to network nations of Europe for space exploration, at a time when the United States and Soviet Union dominated the final frontier.