Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel

KOUROU, French Guiana — The Arianespace commercial launch consortium, juggling the operation of three vehicles and the often last-minute changes in satellite arrival dates, will not be able to set a launch manifest for the rest of the year and into 2014 until late July, Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel said June 25.

Briefing reporters at the Guiana Space Center spaceport here June 25 while preparing the first of four planned launches in 2013 of the Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket, Israel said Evry, France-based Arianespace in all likelihood will be limited to five heavy-lift Ariane 5 launch campaigns in 2013, three more medium-lift Soyuz launches and one Vega small-satellite campaign, which was conducted in May.

The year’s third Ariane 5 mission is scheduled for launch in late July carrying the large Alphasat satellite for mobile satellite services operator Inmarsat of London and the European Space Agency (ESA); and India’s Insat-3D telecommunications satellite.

Beyond that, Israel said, it is unclear which commercial payloads will be placed on the two remaining Ariane 5 flights, scheduled for this fall, or what the Ariane 5 manifest looks like for 2014. A big question is whether Arianespace has any slots open in the Ariane 5 manifest in 2014 to accommodate new customers who want to switch to Ariane 5 because their selected vehicle is late.

“We’ll settle the manifest for the rest of the year only after the Alphasat launch,” Israel said. “What we are looking for is a maximum amount of flexibility” to accommodate different scenarios that will evolve depending on which satellites are ready for launch.

The Ariane 5’s business model is based on launching two commercial telecommunications satellites at a time, which usually means pairing one large satellite with one that is much smaller. The difficulty of finding two satellites ready for launch at the same time with a combined weight that fits into the Ariane 5 has long been one of the challenges for Arianespace.

The arrival of the medium-lift Soyuz and the Vega small-satellite launcher at the spaceport has diversified Arianespace’s product line and allowed the company and the French space agency, CNES, to spread costs over three vehicles.

But it has also forced CNES to enlarge the work force at the spaceport, from 1,500 to around 1,650 employees, according to Bernard Chemoul, director of the Guiana Space Center.

Finding ways to trim operating costs here is a priority for Arianespace as it seeks to reduce the amount of time it takes to transition from, for example, an Ariane 5 launch to a Soyuz launch. 

Louis Laurent, Arianespace’s senior vice president for operations, said the company is working on two fronts to meet its goal of being able to launch every three weeks, even when going from one vehicle to another.

The first is to streamline the satellite test and preparations, and the second is to better manage the downrange radar, tracking and telemetry stations. The latter effort will require close coordination with CNES.

The company is also looking to reduce the 50-day campaign for Soyuz launches to around 40 days. Laurent said the large Russian contingent that arrives for each launch has already been trimmed from 300-plus people for the first launch in 2011 to about 250 now.

Arianespace expects to order a batch of 18 heavy-lift Ariane 5 rockets this year from its industrial contractors, most of which are also Arianespace shareholders.

The company is also prepared to order five more Vega vehicles from Italy’s ELV SpA. Laurent said ordering five rockets is sufficient to help ELV reduce per-vehicle costs insofar as the current focus is increasing Vega’s annual launch rate to two and then three per year. The vehicle has made only two launches.

Arianespace currently has four Vega vehicles on order and these are booked to launch two European government Sentinel environment-monitoring satellites and Earth observation satellites for Kazakhstan and Turkey.

In addition to these four planned Vega campaigns, three more Vegas are being prepared for ESA to launch its Intermediate Experimental Vehicle atmospheric re-entry vehicle, the ADM-Aeolus Earth observation satellite and the Lisa Pathfinder science mission. These vehicles are separate from the five-rocket order planned by Arianespace.

Arianespace has opened negotiations with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, for an order of around 10 more Soyuz rockets. Israel said the exact number is not yet clear and will depend in part on pricing conditions that Arianespace and Roscosmos negotiate. He said the contract should be signed later this year.

The new batch of Soyuz rockets will include vehicles to be launched from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. For now, Israel said, Arianespace will be maintaining its French-Russian Starsem joint venture, which manages Soyuz launches from Baikonur. Plans are to conduct Baikonur launches at a rate of one per year, with three or four per year from Europe’s spaceport.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.