While Satellite Operators Await a SpaceX Debut, Arianespace Walks Away with Recent Awards

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PARIS — The biggest development in the commercial satellite launch market in the coming months is likely to be the success — or failure — of the new Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket operated by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX). But Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium appears to have quietly walked away with most of the recent contract awards.

Officials from Evry, France-based Arianespace have declined to comment beyond saying they have been successful of late. The company said it would be making several announcements the week of Sept. 9 during the World Satellite Business Week conference organized by Euroconsult.

Chief Commercial Officer Jacques Breton said Aug. 29 after the last Ariane 5 launch that the company has booked around 300 million euros ($400 million) in new orders in recent weeks, bringing this year’s total contract volume to 1 billion euros.

Industry officials said the contracts are for government missions in Brazil and Japan and commercial operators in Brazil, the United States, Mexico and Spain.

Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX has tentatively set the inaugural flight of its new Falcon 9 for mid-September, a launch that will place Canada’s Cassiope scientific spacecraft into low Earth orbit.

Despite the low-orbit destination, a successful flight will trigger SpaceX’s entry into the commercial launch market for geostationary-orbiting telecommunications satellites, which make up most of SpaceX’s commercial backlog of more than $1 billion.

The world’s second-largest commercial satellite fleet operator, SES of Luxembourg, has stuck with SpaceX and its low price despite multiple launcher-caused delays for the SES-8 telecommunications spacecraft. SES has agreed to launch SES-8 on Falcon 9’s first geostationary-orbit mission, a sign of the confidence that SES’s technical team has in the vehicle.

Taking advantage of a large amount of cash available for satellite insurance among the underwriters active in this niche, purchasers of SpaceX commercial launches have been able to secure insurance rates that are relatively low for a vehicle that has never flown to geostationary orbit, industry officials said.

A successful launch of SES-8 would send a strong signal to the commercial market that SpaceX is beginning to deliver on its promise to offer launches for up to 50 percent less than Arianespace and International Launch Services (ILS) of Reston, Va., which markets Russia’s Proton rocket. 

Arianespace, meanwhile, has signed, or is about to sign, contracts for as many as six geostationary-orbiting telecommunications satellites for government and commercial customers, industry officials said.

The contracts include an X-band telecommunications satellite for Japan’s DSN consortium, whose members include commercial satellite operator Sky Perfect JSat Corp. in addition to NEC and NTT. The consortium is building two military satellites, using a Mitsubishi Electric satellite bus, for the Japanese government as part of a private finance initiative. The DSN consortium pays for the satellites’ construction, launch and operations and the government pays an annual user fee. The Arianespace contract concerns the first of these two satellites, DSN-1.

A second contract is with Sky Mexico, owned by satellite television provider DirecTV Group of Los Angeles, for a satellite being built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. Orbital is expected to build a second Sky Mexico satellite as part of the same contract, but industry officials said this has been delayed while the orbital frequency rights are negotiated.

Three additional contracts are for orbital slots over Brazil, but for three different customers. 

The Brazilian government’s Geostationary Defense and Strategic Communications Satellite, or SGDC, being built by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, is all but certain to be contracted for launch aboard an Ariane 5 rocket, industry officials said. They added that no contract has been signed.

Brazil’s domestic commercial satellite fleet operator, Star One, has contracted with Arianespace for the launch of its next satellite, originally named Star One C5, under construction by Space Systems/Loral (SSL) of Palo Alto, Calif.

Hispasat of Spain will use Ariane 5 for the launch of the Amazonas 4A spacecraft, under construction by Orbital Sciences. The satellite continues Hispasat’s buildup of capacity in Latin America, which recently has been one of the fastest-growing regions in terms of satellite bandwidth demand.

Arianespace is also expected to announce that it will launch the Intelsat IS-34 satellite for Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington. This spacecraft, under construction by SSL, will replace the IS-27 lost during a failure of a Sea Launch AG rocket early this year, but without the military UHF-band payload onboard IS-27.

IS-34 will be a relatively small version of SSL’s 1300 satellite frame and is expected to weigh less than 4,000 kilograms at launch.

The trick in building Arianespace’s manifest — and one reason the company wants the next-generation Ariane 6 vehicle to launch satellites one at a time — is to find pairings that fill the Ariane 5 capacity in matching smaller and larger spacecraft.

On the heavier side of the equation, Arianespace faces competition from ILS and from Sea Launch of Bern, Switzerland. On the lighter-weight side, the competition recently has been from SpaceX.