Space giant Astrium has won a new €112 million (US $147m) contract to continue development of a powerful new model of Europe's Ariane 5 heavy launcher.
The Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (ME) will be able to carry 20 per cent bigger satellite payloads for the same price, cutting the cost of getting into orbit. A first test flight is expected in 2017.
Much of the rocket is made up of similar parts to the previous version which has won itself a reputation as a trusty and reliable workhorse. The latest Ariane 5 lift-off on March 23, carrying the ATV-3 Edoardo Amaldi, from French Guiana, was the 47th successful launch by the vehicle.
The main upgrade will be a new upper stage that is equipped with a Vinci cryogenic engine fuelled by liquid hydrogen and oxygen that can be restarted five times. The nose fairing that contains the payloads being carried into orbit is also being extended by three metres.
It means the Ariane 5 ME will be able to carry up to twelve metric tons of payload into geostationary orbit where communications satellites need to be placed. Two satellites each weighing more than five tons can therefore be carried at once, allowing the rocket to meet the European Space Agency's "two-in-one launcher" concept.
The contract will allow Astrium to design the latest sub-systems for Ariane before the European Space Agency's Ministerial Council gives the go-ahead for the final phase of development in November this year. ESA previously awarded Astrium an initial two-year development contract worth €150 million in December 2009.
Astrium, which has 18,000 employees worldwide, mainly in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and the Netherlands, has been prime contractor for the Ariane 5 since 2003. It is a susidiary of global aerospace company EADS, whose products include the Airbus.
Alain Charmeau, CEO of Astrium Space Transportation, said: “This €112 million contract underscores that maturity of the Ariane 5ME programme.
"As prime contractor, Astrium will continue to coordinate the work of more than 30 companies across Europe, with whom we have already completed major phases in the development of a launcher that anticipates the needs of both commercial and European institutional markets.”
In December 2011, ESA validated the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution launcher project after more than 100 European specialists approved the development plan and specifications for various sub-systems of the launcher in what was called the Preliminary Design Review.
The acceptance of the new design, and in particular the new upper stage, gave a clear green light for development of the Ariane 5 ME to continue.
In an earlier development on 12 March, Astrium and Air Liquide formed a new partnership called EuroCryospace to develop and manufacture cryogenic fuel tanks, in particular the new fuel tank for the upper stage of the Ariane 5 ME, which will be produced in Bremen, Germany.