PARIS, April 21 (Reuters) - Europe took a key step towards the entry into service of a new space launcher on Friday when the makers of Ariane 6 said they had been cleared to started building the first test rocket.
Airbus Safran Launchers, jointly owned by Airbus and French engine maker Safran, said it had passed a review by the European Space Agency allowing it to go ahead with the first example of the new satellite launcher, which will be used only for ground testing.
The test phase is part of a 2.4 billion-euro ($2.6 billion)programme to keep Europe in the increasingly competitive satellite launch business amid pressure from low-cost rivals such as U.S. company Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX). Japan and India also pose a growing challenge.
The new, cheaper rocket will replace the current Ariane 5 starting from its first launch, planned for 2020.
Ariane 6 is designed to be available in two versions, Ariane 62 and 64.
Airbus Safran Launchers said it also aimed to start work before the end of the year on production of the first rockets that will fly from the programme's French Guiana launch base. To do so, it must pass a further review. ($1 = 0.9348 euros) (Reporting by Cyril Altmeyer, Tim Hepher; Editing by Greg Mahlich)