BREMEN, Germany — A SpaceX bid to launch Germany’s optical intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance satellites coupled with the Falcon 9 rocket’s increased flight rate — the key incredient for cost-effective rocket-stage reuse — has raised fresh questions about whether Europe’s launch sector can remain viable.
Recent signals include:
— The German Aerospace Center, DLR, conducted an analysis of Falcon 9 first-stage reuse and concluded that SpaceX could begin to realize significant cost savings with as few as 20-25 launches per year, lower than previous outside assessments. SpaceX has launched 16 times in 2017, likely will end the year near 20 missions and plans to increase the per-year rate in 2018 and beyond.
— European governments remain undecided over whether to guarantee to ArianeGroup, the prime contractor of the current Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket and the future Ariane 6, at least five mid-size government satellites per year to the Ariane 6 manifest. Ariane 6 is scheduled to make its first flight in 2020.
— Europe’s largest economy, Germany, has never adopted the French and, more recently, Italian government position that launcher autonomy is a strategic necessity. While German industry is heavily involved in Ariane 6, the government remains ambivalent about whether rockets are anything more than a commodity.
Doubts in France
How far the French government will go in preserving the Ariane 6 rocket’s commercial appeal is unclear. European governments agreed to finance Ariane 6 development on condition that they would stop the $100 million or so in annual subsidies to ArianeGroup to offset fixed costs.
But there have been indications in recent weeks that the French government has taken the measure of tomorrow’s global launch market and does not like what it sees.
In what was likely an unexpected question during a Nov. 19 interview with Europe 1 radio, French Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire was asked if SpaceX meant the death of Ariane.
“Death? I’m not sure I’d say that. But I am certain of the threat,” Le Maire said. “I am worried.” Le Maire cited figures that are far from proven — including a possible 80% reduction in the already low SpaceX Falcon 9 launch price once the benefits of reusability are realized.
“We need to relfect on a reusable launcher in Europe, and we need to invest massively in innovation,” Le Maire said.
Five days later, the ministers of defense, research and economy issued a joint statement reaffirming their full backing for Ariane 6 and said investment in future launcher technology would be increased, in part theough a European Innovation Agency to be given a budget of 10 billion euros ($13 billion).
For Germany’s DLR, SpaceX on verge of making reusability pay
After a decade of “What If” hypotheses concerning SpaceX, its European competitors now accept that the company may in fact be able to reduce costs by introducing previously flown Falcon 9 first stages into its business.
Gerd Gruppe, a member of DLR’s executive board and responsible for DLR’s space program, said the agency has concluded that SpaceX is on the verge of realizing the savings it has promised from reusing first stages.
“With 20 launches a year the Falcon 9 uses around 200 engines, and while their cost of refurbishment is unknown, we think SpaceX is well on the way to establishing a competitive system based on the reusability” of the rocket’s first stage, Gruppe said here Oct. 24 at the Space Tech Expo conference.
ULA: SpaceX needs to reuse each stage at least 10 times to break even
Not everyone is so sure. Leslie Kovacs, executive branch director at United Launch Alliance (ULA), said ULA has concluded that SpaceX needs to refly Falcon 9 first stages 10 times each to make reusability pay.
“The question of reusability is not a technical problem. It boils down to an economic problem,” Kovacs siad here Oct. 24. “Our internal analysis shows that if you are going to do that [reuse the first stage], the break-even point is about 10 times. You have to bring back that first stage 10 times for it to be economically beneficial for you.”
For its proposed future Vulcan rocket, ULA wants to reuse only the first-stage engine, not the entire stage.
SpaceX is launching Germany’s three-satellite second-generation military radar satellite system, called SARah, in 2018 and 2019 on two Falcon 9 missions. The contract, awarded in 2013, was explained then as a special case given that Airbus had a long-standing SpaceX contract that could be leveraged for the SARah work at an unbeatable price.
But now SpaceX is ready to bid for Germany’s first optical reconnaissance system, an apparently three-satellite network to be owned by the German Federal Intelligence Service, BND.
Germany has long complained that Europe’s rockets are overly dependent on subsidies and are still too expensive.
Germany: A cheaper reliable launcher is the preferred option
“Other nations like China, the USA and Russia — they do not use foreign launchers for their government missions,” said Brigitte Zypries, the outgoing German secretary of state for responsible for space.
“But there is always a discussion in Europe about using public money for developing [launchers]. Not all my colleagues agree with me on this. They say: If we can have it less expensively, why not?” Zypries said here Oct. 23 during the Morespace conference.
Gruppe said: “What we want is a launcher family that will not need any subsidies from public agencies. We hope there will be a relatively free market, with access by Europe to other markets and the other way around as well, where competitors can offer their products in the European market.”
For now the U.S. government shows no sign of changing its requirement that U.S. government missions be conducted on U.S. rockets except in the case of cooperative agreements.
A $97 million SpaceX launch of Europe’s Sentinel-6A; Eumetsat’s RFP
One such mission is the Sentinel-6A Earth observation satellite, built in Europe as part of a U.S.-European cooperation on ocean altimetry that assigned the satellite to Europe and the launch to NASA.
NASA is paying SpaceX $97 million for that late-2020 launch, a price that is substantially higher than what a Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket, or Europe’s own Vega-C vehicle, would have charged.
SpaceX made a bid to Europe’s meteorological satellite agency, Eumetsat, to launch Eumetsat’s next-generation Metop polar-orbiting spacecraft.
Eumetsat, in response to Space Intel Report queries, said it had invited both SpaceX and ArianeGroup’s Arianespace to bid on the contract. Both submitted binding bids. Arianespace won the contract by bidding two Soyuz rockets from Europe’s South American spaceport, with the option of a third launch, in 2022, using either a Europeanized Soyuz or the new Ariane 6 rocket in its lighter version.
The next European governments to launch on SpaceX will be Luxembourg and Spain. Luxembourg’s GovSat-1 telecommunications satellite, a joint venture with commercial fleet operator SES, is slated for launch in January, as is Spain’s first radar satellite called, Paz, which has a civil and military mission.
European governments are expected to decide on some sort of Buy European Act for launchers in mid-2018. How formal or binding it will be is uncertain.
Françoise Grossetete, a French member of the European Parliament, said during a Nov. 24 conference in Paris organized by Circle Belem that it’s still unclear whether all European Union governments will agree to the measure. Germany is a special concern, she said.
Arianespace CEO: ‘We won’t survive without EU government guarantee’
Stephane Israel, executive vice president of ArianeGroup and chief executive of Arianespace, said a refusal of European governments to guarantee a minimum number of launches would be catastrophic for the Ariane launch system.
“I want to be clear here: We will not be able to confront an American competition that is supported by U.S. government orders if there are not European orders,” Israel said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of launcher you develop. Without European government support, it will not exist.
“If there is not this kind of [Buy European Act], we will not survive the next decade.”
Israel said he remained optimistic that governments would in fact commit to using the launchers that provide employment in their territory and have been developed with European taxpayer money.
ArianeGroup has said it can make Ariane 6 a success with five mid-size payloads — one-half of a heavy-lift Ariane 64 or a dedicated launch on the lighter Ariane 62. This would be complemented by an average of six Ariane 6 commercial missions a year, a goal he said was achievable given the prospects for the commercial market and the fact that major satelilte operators want to maintain two or three viable launch options.