European Commission OK’s Airbus Safran Launchers takeover of Arianespace

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PARIS – The European Commission on July 20 approved the Airbus Safran Launchers (ASL) takeover of launch-services provider Arianespace, saying the companies had accepted conditions the commission imposed to minimize the chance of anti-competitive behavior.

The decision, which was expected, is likely to result in ASL’s payment of about 150 million euros ($166 million) to the French space agency, CNES, which holds the 35 percent stake on behalf of the French government. CNES officials have said they will be able to invest the money into their own programs without forwarding it to the French government’s general treasury. The transaction is expected within weeks.

The commission concluded that Evry, France-based Arianespace does not have a monopoly on global commercial launch services. Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX and International Launch Services of Reston, Virginia – which markets Russia’s Proton rocket – furnish a robust competition “in a market that is highly dynamic and where customers have a certain degree of buying power,” the commission said in a statement.

European government and industry officials familiar with the world space market had expressed exasperation in recent months that the Brussels, Belgium-based commission would need to spend months to discover that the launch market has always been a rough neighborhood where no one – not even Arianespace – has been able to dictate prices.

The commission specifically investigated what measures would be needed to prevent Arianespace from slipping confidential information on non-Airbus satellites it launches to Airbus, a 50 percent shareholder of ASL and a major builder of commercial and government satellites.

The commission was also worried that Airbus Defence and Space’s satellite manufacturing division would leak proprietary data to Arianespace about Arianespace’s competitors in those cases where Airbus-built satellites are launched by an Arianespace competitor.

ASL and Arianespace have agreed, at the commission’s insistence, to create firewalls to prevent proprietary data on satellites and launchers from distorting the competitive market.

To reduce the likelihood that Airbus or Arianespace personnel would compromise their judgment out of concern for a future post at one or the other company, both companies have agreed to “place measures restricting employees’ mobility between the companies,” the commission said.

To bolster the effectiveness of the firewalls between Airbus, ASL and Arianespace, the companies agreed to include an arbitration procedure in all future nondisclosure agreements with third parties.

Commission sees no Vega-Ariane 6 friction

The commission rejected concerns that an ASL-dominated Arianespace might be tempted to steer business to the future Ariane 6 rocket, of which ASL is prime contractor, to the detriment of the Italian-led Vega small-satellite launcher.

The planned upgrades to Vega give the vehicle an overlap in capacity with the lighter of the two Ariane 6 variants in development, called the Ariane 62.

It was not out of the question, according to the pro-Vega argument, that Arianespace would offer an Earth observation satellite customer a cut-rate price for a shared ride aboard an Ariane 62 instead of a dedicated launch on a Vega.

ELV of Italy, led by Avio SpA of Colleferro, Italy, is the prime contractor for Vega. The upgraded Vega-C is scheduled to make its inaugural flight in 2019. The first Ariane 6 is scheduled to fly starting in late 2020.

“[T]he Ariane and Vega launchers have different technical characteristics and prices and can rarely be used for the same missions,” the commission said in a statement that some European industry officials would contest. “Even in these rare instances, the merged entity will not be able to discriminate against the Vega launcher. This is because ELV, the Vega launcher manufacturer, will be involved in the exploitation of the launcher and the European Space Agency can also play a role to prevent discrimination due to its supervisory powers.”

The commission also dismissed concerns that Arianespace could decide that Ariane payload adaptors and dispensers would be purchased only from Airbus and ASL, saying European Space Agency procurement rules already prohibit that.

ASL and Arianespace have agreed, at the commission’s insistence, to create firewalls to prevent proprietary data on satellites and launchers from distorting the competitive market.

“The commitments offered by ASL address the commission’s concerns in full as they will prevent any exchange of sensitive information between Airbus and Arianespace to the detriment of competing satellite manufacturers and launch service providers,” the commission said.