Europe’s launch industry, led by Arianespace and Airbus Safran Launchers, is asking European governments to sign, this year, a contractual commitment to launch five satellites per year aboard the future Ariane 6 rocket, and two per year on the new Vega-C light-class vehicle, between 2021 and 2025. The companies say they need a predictable level of government demand before they begin production of Ariane 6 and Vega-C this year. Whether Germany and Italy and other individual governments will agree is uncertain. Credit: Airbus Safran Launchers
PARIS — Airbus Safran Launchers, the prime contractor for Europe’s current Ariane 5 and future Ariane 6 heavy-lift rockets, is asking European governments for a guaranteed annual demand of five satellites for Ariane 6 and two for Europe’s future Vega-C between 2021 and 2025, ASL President Alain Charmeau said Jan. 23.
Implicit in the demand is that European governments stop using the Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket once Ariane 6 is operational in 2020, and Vega-C makes debuts in 2019.
Charmeau said ASL, which now ons 74 percent of the Arianespace launch service provider, wants the guarantee in the form of a five-year contract, signed this year, to enable the company to optimise its own production and that of its supply chain.
European governments agreed to invest in Ariane 6 on condition that Arianespace would no longer need the approximately $100 million in annual price supports once Ariane 6 has succeeded Ariane 5 by 2023.
ASL and the other Ariane 6 contractors agreed to that, and also agreed to invest some $440 million (400 million euros) of their own cash in Ariane 6 development — with the proviso that European governments would agree to use European rockets exclusively.
With this guaranteed business, ASL could then fend for itself on the commercial market without annual government support.
“We are at a tremendous disadvantage with respect to our competitors because we do not have much government business,” Charmeau said, comparing European government satellite demand with that of the U.S., Russian and Chinese governments.
In addition to the relatively low level of government space activity, there is no policy in European insisting that governments restrict their launch options to European rockets.
Despite the lack of a specific policy, most European governments select European rockets as a matter of course, especially since the Europeanized Soyuz, operated from Europe’s spaceport, and the Euro-Russian Rockot vehicle have both been labeled as “European.”
Germany, Italy tempted by non-European options
But there are exceptions. The German Defense Ministry’s next three radar Earth observation satellites are set to launch on two SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. The program’s prime contractor, OHB SE of Germany, said using an existing Airbus SpaceX reservation and placing the two other radar satellites on a second Falcon 9 was the only way to remain within the contract’s budget limits.
The Italian government has yet to contract for launch services of its two second-generation Cosmo-SkyMed radar satellites, although the launches of both are expected to occur before 2021.
The European Commission, which is now Arianespace’s biggest government customer, owns the Galileo navigation and Copernicus Earth observation networks. But both these systems’ first-generation satellites are being launched now — using Ariane 6, Europeanized Soyuz and Rockot vehicles.
ESA, Commission demand may not be enough in 2021-2025
How many satellites the commission will have available for launch between 2021 and 2015 is uncertain.
Charmeau said that to meet the objectives of the proposed contract, European national governments would need to be part of it.
“What we’re asking for is entirely realistic,” Charmeau said. “We are asking only for the same kind of commitment that our competitors have from their governments. And we want a five-year supply contract to give us some transparency in the business.”
The European Commission in recent months has spoken more openly about a European preference being given for space-launch systems. The 22-nation European Space Agency would have no trouble signing a five-year commitment.
But Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization, while a loyal Arianespace customer, in the past has said it is legally bound to make launch decisions on a value-for-money basis, making a multi-year commitment more difficult.
The German and Italian governments have likewise been reluctant to restrict their launcher choices even though their domestic industry is heavily involved in both the Ariane 6 and Vega-C programs.