PARIS — Europe’s use of Russia’s Soyuz rocket at the European spaceport in French Guiana is now at risk as Russia multiplies its own use of the rocket in Russia and has less need for a European partner,Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said March 26.
The Arianespace launch consortium of Evry, France, operates the Europeanized Soyuz rocket from the equatorial Guiana Space Center.
Appearing before the French Senate’s Economic Affairs Committee, which was auditioning Le Gall as the likely next president of the French space agency, CNES, Le Gall said Russia signed the Soyuz cooperation agreement with France and Europe at a moment of weakness in Russia’s space market.
“Our cooperation began when Russia had serious problems,” Le Gall said. “There were practically no more Soyuz launches occurring. Today, Soyuz is not only the only way of sending astronauts to and from the international space station, it also is used 22 times each year by the Russian government. That makes our cooperation less important to the Russians. This has to be monitored closely.”
The Europeanized Soyuz began operations at Europe’s spaceport, on the northeast coast of South America, in 2011. It is now a principal means of launching European government satellites, which for the most part are too small to justify a launch aboard Europe’s own Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket.
In particular, Soyuz is being used, along with the Ariane 5, to place the European Galileo positioning, navigation and timing constellation into medium-Earth orbit.
The agreement with Russia on the use of Soyuz is not set to expire before 2020, and Arianespace estimates that the rocket will be used an average of four times per year alongside Ariane 5 and the new Vega small-satellite launcher.
Le Gall said the use of Soyuz, instead of Ariane 5, to launch European government satellites is one motivating factor behind the push to develop an Ariane 5 successor, called Ariane 6.
Ariane 5 is optimized to carry two satellites at a time to geostationary transfer orbit, the most common drop-off point for telecommunications satellites. Ariane 6 is designed to launch one satellite at a time weighing between 2,000 and 8,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit.
Its modular design and expected low cost will enable it to take over the work of Soyuz and of Ariane 5 sometime around 2020-2022. European Space Agency governments in November agreed to begun early work on the vehicle, with a formal go-ahead development decision expected in mid-2014.
In the meantime, Soyuz will be launching more European government satellites than Ariane 5, which was built with European taxpayer money and intended to preserve European governments’ independent access to space.
Using Soyuz instead of Ariane “is not strictly in conformance with the doctrine of autonomy in space access,” Le Gall told the hearing. “So the first goal of Ariane 6 is to reconcile our launcher product with the size of government satellites.”
Ariane 6’s lower development costs are supposed to be accompanied by lower operating costs. Le Gall said the Ariane 5 facilities at the Guiana Space Center are huge, while competitor Space Exploration Technologies Corp. () of Hawthorne, Calif., operates its Falcon 9 rocket at a launch pad the size of a football field.
In his 10 years as chief executive of Arianespace, Le Gall has been routinely withering in his disparagement of SpaceX, saying the company has not shown it is able to launch successfully with sufficient frequency to succeed in the market.
But in recent months, Le Gall has modulated his view of SpaceX. As he prepares to take the reins of CNES, an event likely to occur by mid-April, he even complimented — in a back-handed way — SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
“SpaceX has been mainly financed by the U.S. government,” Le Gall said. “But it was started by someone who was willing to invest his own money. I think Mr. Musk invested something like $400 million. It is said that a SpaceX IPO [initial public stock offering] would generate between $2 billion and $4 billion in investment. When you invest $400 million and take out $4 billion 10 years later, you’ve made a good investment.”
Asked about the future relationship between CNES and Arianespace, Le Gall said the French government should retain its status as the biggest shareholder in Arianespace. Over the years there has been a debate over whether the government should sell its shares to the 20-nation European Space Agency, or to Arianespace’s industrial shareholders, which for the most part are Ariane 5 contractors.
But Arianespace is not a normal commercial enterprise, Le Gall said.
“It is a very unusual company,” Le Gall said of Arianespace. “It was created to provide autonomous access to space for European governments, and it now sells Ariane rockets around the world for commercial satellite operators. But its basic mission remains: Guarantee autonomous access to space to Europe.”
Given that core ambition, he said, Arianespace should remain a company with a strong French government shareholder.
Once he becomes head of CNES, Le Gall will have a seat on Arianespace’s board of directors as the chief representative of the company’s largest equity owner.