Ariane 5 down to two dozen launches before Ariane 6 takes over

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WASHINGTON — European launch provider Arianespace expects to conduct just 23 more Ariane 5 launches before the next-generation Ariane 6 becomes its primary rocket.

The final Ariane 5s will launch between 2020 and 2022, overlapping with the first three years of Ariane 6 missions. Arianespace ordered the final 10 Ariane 5 boosters Jan. 9, placing a billion-plus euro contract with ArianeGroup to build the rockets while spinning up the first Ariane 6 rockets.

Currently a mainstay of the space launch sector, the Ariane 5 has launched 96 times since debuting in 1996, overcoming a rash of failures in its early days to perform 82 consecutive successes. A continued streak would see the venerable rocket retiring four years from now with just four failures (the last in 2002) and 119 successes, including next year’s launch of the $9 billion James Webb Space Telescope.

Stephane Israel, Arianespace CEO, told SpaceNews Jan. 9 that the company is actively selling slots on Ariane 5’s final 10 missions (planned for 2020 to 2022). A few of those slots, he said, have already been sold.

At present, Arianespace has 18 missions on its Ariane 5 manifest, including:

  • 15 dual launches carrying two or more satellites (a favored cost-splitting approach for satellite telecom operators);
  • Two science missions — the European and Japanese space agencies’ BepiColombo Mercury orbiter this year and NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in 2019;
  • One launch this July carrying four Galileo navigation satellites.

Arianespace has also sold two Ariane 6 missions to the European Commission for the launch of four Galileo satellites. The missions, booked through the European Space Agency, will carry two satellites at a time using an Ariane 6 with two strap-on boosters instead of four.

Neither Galileo launch will be the first mission for Ariane 6, Israel said but Arianespace anticipates carrying real payloads on the first Ariane 6 as well as the  Vega C small-satellite launcher debuting next year.

“The customers are not identified yet, but both will have customers,” he said.

Securing demand stability for Ariane 6

Arianespace and ArianeGroup have for over a year been seeking a commitment from European governments to bundle their launch needs into a minimum of five Ariane 6 launches per year. That commitment would ensure stable production output and help keep costs down as Arianespace seeks to sell another five to seven Ariane 6 launches annually on the commercial market, officials say.

Israel said space missions underway from the European Commission, ESA, Eumetsat and individual governments are tracking for an average of seven “institutional” Ariane-class missions every year from 2020 to 2022. After 2022, the number of government missions decreases to around five, he said.

“We are in the range we expected when we made the decision to go to Ariane 6 because Ariane 6 is [designed] around five institutional missions per year,” Israel said. “What we need now — and we are confident we can do so — we need to consolidate this demand for our launcher. We need full commitment from Europe to go in this direction. The first good news is the missions are there.”

“The second good news is that when you speak to European decision makers, you see a trend going in the direction of buying European, the same as our friends the Americans are buying American,” he added.

“[B]uying American” is a stance long held by the U.S. government in space launch — U.S. government spacecraft launch on American rockets. Exceptions have been made for joint science missions, such as when ESA agreed to pay for Arianespace to launch James Webb. Europe has no such rule, and the ability and willingness to put public European payloads on foreign rockets is something Arianespace considers a competitive disadvantage.

“The U.S. institutional market is closed to European launchers, and I do not critique, but we must take that as an example,” Israel said. “We must do exactly what the U.S. is doing; we must structure our institutional market to give us more robustness when it comes to selling the rocket on the open market.

The year ahead

Arianespace has 14 missions on its 2018 manifest — seven heavy-lift Ariane 5s, four medium-lift Soyuz and three light-lift Vega rockets. Israel cautioned that 14 is a “target,” not a commitment, since variables — some outside of the company’s control — can dictate how many missions are actually accomplished.

Last year’s projection of 12 launches closed with 11 after one customer’s satellite was not ready. Israel declined to name which satellite it was, though at least three — Avanti’s Hylas-4, ESA’s EDRS-C, and YahSat’s Al Yah 3 — all experienced production delays.

Arianespace’s first Ariane 5 mission of 2018 is the Jan. 25 dual launch of Yahsat’s Al Yah 3 and SES’s SES-14 telecommunications satellites.

Israel said the first of four Soyuz missions on the manifest is scheduled for March and will carry four O3b medium Earth orbit communications satellites for SES.

At least one of the remaining three will be for OneWeb, the satellite-broadband startup that has 21 Arianespace Soyuz launches booked and expects to start service in 2019.

Israel did not identify customers for the other two Soyuz launches Arianespace plans to conduct this year, but implied that they could be for OneWeb.

“We will launch at least once for OneWeb this year and maybe more,” he said.

OneWeb founder Greg Wyler told SpaceNews the timing of the company’s main launch campaign is dependent on the performance of the first 10 mass-produced satellites that will launch this year. “After they check out we start the big launch campaign,” he said by email, adding that 2019 is when OneWeb hopes to have a launch going every 21 days.

Arianespace’s launch plans for Soyuz are not affected by the November failure of a Soyuz rocket carrying a Russian weather satellite and 18 secondary payloads, Israel said. The failure was blamed on software that didn’t account for Soyuz launching from the newly opened Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East instead of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan.

A unique mission

Arianespace on Jan. 9 announced two launch contracts with fleet operator Intelsat, one of which will carry three satellites instead of Ariane 5’s typical two-satellite load.

Intelsat’s Galaxy-30 satellite will share the upper berth of an Ariane 5 launching in 2020 with Orbital ATK’s second satellite-servicing Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-2). The lower berth is reserved for a customer Arianespace has not yet named.

The second Intelsat contract calls for an Ariane 5 launch of an unnamed satellite in 2020.

Intelsat is not the first satellite operator to agree to launch an Orbital ATK-built satellite stacked with the company’s Mission Extension Vehicle. Late this year, the Eutelsat 5 West B satellite will be stacked with MEV-1 for launch aboard an International Launch Services Proton rocket. Both Galaxy-30 and Eutelsat 5 West B are based on Orbital ATK’s GEOStar spacecraft platform.

The ability to directly stack MEVs with GEOStar satellites gives Orbital ATK a new selling point. Because one side of the MEV is devoid of crushable instruments, a satellite can be stacked on top of it without using the protective barrier Ariane 5 normally places between dual-launched satellites. Stacking MEV with a GEOStar satellite enables dual launch on rockets that have no divider, like Proton, or, in the case of MEV-2, enable a third passenger to share the cost of a launch.