PARIS: Franco-German space group ArianeGroup said Monday that it had begun production of 14 new satellite launchers, destined to replace the workhorse Ariane 5 rockets as it contends with cheaper competition from Elon Musk’s SpaceX programme.
The first Ariane 6 rockets, expected to cost 40 percent less to make than the current versions, will be ready in 2021 and have their first launch in the second half of 2020, the company said.
“It’s a decisive step for the Ariane 6 programme,” said Stephane Israel, the executive president of Arianespace, which provides commercial satellite launches from its South American base in French Guiana.
The rockets will be built at ArianeGroup’s factories in France and Germany as well as at sites of industrial partners from the 13 European countries participating in the Ariane 6 project.
It is part of the European Space Agency’s plan to compete with SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket.
Musk, the American company’s founder, is also behind the wildly popular Tesla electric cars, though it has struggled with production setbacks.
ArianeGroup will build eight final Ariane 5s before beginning t phase out a rocket that has put more than 200 satellites into orbit since it was first launched in 1996.
Arianespace is jointly owned by European planemaker Airbus and Safran, the French aeronautics and defence contractor.