Ovzon-3, a Maxar Technologies all-electric SSL-500 Legion satellite platform, is expected to weigh 1,500 kilograms at launch. Credit: Maxar

WASHINGTON — The August announcement by startup Swedish satellite operator Ovzon AB that it had moved its first satellite from a SpaceX Falcon Heavy in 2020 to an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket in 2021 created a big splash for such a small spacecraft.

The Maxar Technologies-built Ovzon-3, an all-electric satellite, is expected to weigh 1,500 kilograms at launch.

Ovzon has said that a direct-go-GEO launch on a Falcon Heavy would have meant starting service sooner than the GEO transfer-orbit drop-off provided by Ariane 5, but Ovzon has said the satellite’s electric propulsion will still give it a 20-year life: http://bit.ly/2U0XivR

For Europe’s launch-service provider, there is no sweeter victory than one over SpaceX. Because a 1,500-kilogram payload is not always a comfortable fit for Ariane 5 and its need to find two compatible passengers going to GTO orbit, rumors began circulating.

What promises did Arianespace make to steal this customer away from its arch-rival?

Officials affiliated with Arianespace competitors — not just SpaceX, it was also International Launch Services (ILS) — suggested that Arianespace guaranteed Ovzon an on-schedule launch even if that meant flying Ovzon-3 solo on the Ariane 5.

That such a rumor would be believed is a measure of how dismal the GEO-satellite market looks for all launch service providers in 2020 and 2021. SpaceX at least has its constellation of low-orbiting Starlink broadband satellites to fill its manifest in those years.

But even SpaceX, which has always been a price leader, has been offering missions at surprisingly low cost to customers. One prospective customer said it was offered a Falcon 9 launch to low Earth orbit for a 900-kilogram satellite for $40 million, as the mission’s main customer, as an incentive to lure the customer from the PSLV rocket operated by India’s ISRO.

For Arianespace, offering to launch a 1,500-kilogram satellite a dedicated Ariane 5 launch would not be well-received by European Space Agency (ESA) governments, which are preparing a fresh set of Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 support programs as Arianespace transitions from Ariane 5 to Ariane 6 between 2020 and 2022-23.

“We would be, let’s say, very surprised if that were the case,” said one European government official.

In an Oct. 22 briefing here during the International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel dismissed the Ovzon-3 solo-passenger idea.

“I can strongly deny that,” Israel said. “It’s a dual launch, and there is absolutely no ambiguity about that. It’s a classical dual launch, with a co-passenger. I am surprised that people would say that.”

Ovzon-3 aside, the near-term manifest for Arianespace has never been less transparent. The company has scheduled the launch of two telecommunications satellites — the Egyptian government’s Tiba-1 and the Inmarsat GX-5 telecommunications satellites — for an Ariane 5 scheduled for Nov. 22.

Satellite delays make predictions of launches after that impossible, Israel said. Will there be an Ariane 5 launch in December?

“It’s not the most probable scenario, but let’s wait and see,” Israel said. “I can see pretty clearly for November, but December is too far away.”

Arianespace has a mid-December launch planned of a Soyuz rocket from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome carrying around 34 OneWeb broadband satellites to low Earth orbit.

It will be the second of 21 OneWeb Soyuz launches contracted with Arianespace. Most will occur from Russian spaceports, but the first, last February, and several others are also possible from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America.

A second Soyuz launch in December, this one from the European spaceport, could carry Italy’s Cosmo Skymed-2 radar Earth imaging satellite along with ESA’s Cheops exoplanet-hunting satellite.

The UAE’s Falcon Eye 1 satellite is shown here in prelaunch preparation at Europe’s Guiana Space Center. The satellite was destroyed in Vega launch failure, putting pressure on Arianespace to launch the identical Falcon Eye 2 as soon as possible. Credit: Arianespace

Arianespace’s Vega rocket has been grounded since its July failure carrying the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces’s Falcon Eye 1 optical reconnaissance satellite. An identical Falcon Eye 2 is ready for launch, but Israel said it remains uncertain as to when this will occur.

The Falcon Eye spacecraft were built by Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space, with Airbus acting as Arianespace’s formal customer for the launch.

Vega is expected to return to flight in March. But whether the launch will carry the second Falcon Eye, Spain’s Seosat-Ingenio optical Earth observation satellite, or the 42 satellites sharing the inaugural Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS) is still not certain.

Arianespace and ESA are eager to fly the first SSMS mission given the remarkable growth in demand for smallsat missions, especially at a time when the market for large satellites is in a prolonged slump.

“We have different options and we want to discuss with customers to see what their best scenario is for them,” Israel said. “SSMS is a possibility.”

“for Falcon Eye 2, our direct customer is Airbus, and the UAE is their customer. We are 100% mobilized to offer the best solution for the UAE. Falcon Eye 2 is a very important mission and it is obvious that we have to offer different options to the UAE. They will choose the one in their best interests.”