Ariane 5. Credit: Arianespace

PARIS — The Arianespace launch consortium’s order of long-lead items for 18 heavy-lift Ariane 5 ECA rockets is the first of what is expected to be a multibillion-dollar commitment in the coming months to assure an uninterrupted supply of Ariane 5, medium-lift Soyuz and the small Vega rockets.

Evry, France-based Arianespace and Ariane 5 prime contractor Astrium Space Transportation announced Sept. 18 that they had signed a contract valued at more than 400 million euros ($517 million) for long-production-cycle Ariane 5 ECA components and the start of certain other production activities on the new rockets.

The final contract for the rockets’ construction, expected this year, will bring the full contract value to more than 2 billion euros, Arianespace officials estimate.

The new vehicles will be launched starting in 2017 at a rate of between four and six per year, depending on market demand. Arianespace still has 20 Ariane 5 vehicles on order from a 35-rocket contract signed in 2009.

An order for between seven and 10 medium-lift Russian Soyuz rockets is expected in the coming months with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. Ten Soyuz vehicles are in production for Arianespace at the moment, and the company estimates that the new batch will be needed for launches starting in 2016 or 2017 — again depending on market demand.

Arianespace has ordered four Vega small-satellite rockets so far and expects to contract for five more by the end of this year with Vega prime contractor ELV, owned by Italy’s Avio and the Italian Space Agency.

Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel said the continued high rate of Soyuz production for Russian government launches makes the Arianespace order for Soyuz vehicles less urgent. 

Launch Pad Throughput

In parallel with the new Ariane 5 ECA order — and crucial to Evry, France-based Arianespace’s goal of wringing efficiencies from the operation of the three rockets — will be the company’s effort to reduce the amount of time needed between launches of the different vehicles.

Arianespace officials say they hope to reduce from three weeks to two the time it takes to prepare an Ariane 5 launch after the launch of Soyuz. 

The vehicles operate from separate sites at Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America, but they share tracking radars and launch-preparation teams.

Just as important — and an issue that has already caused stress for two Arianespace customers, O3b Networks of Britain’s Channel Islands and the 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA) — will be reducing the current seven-week interval now required between two Soyuz rockets by about 20 percent.

Arianespace Senior Vice President Louis Laurent said here during a Sept. 9 press briefing that the reduction of time between the Ariane 5 and Soyuz launches, to two weeks, should be in effect by the end of this year.

Laurent did not commit to a timetable for the 20 percent reduction in time between two Soyuz launches, but said the company already has begun to trim the length of Soyuz launch campaigns.

A late-September launch of a Soyuz carrying four O3b broadband communications satellites was scrubbed three weeks before liftoff because of what O3b says is likely a minor glitch in satellite power observed on two of the four O3b satellites launched in June.

But because of the seven-week interval for Soyuz launches, O3b was obliged to give Arianespace a firm yes-or-no decision on whether to maintain the Sept. 30 launch. 

ESA already had chafed at the fact that its Gaia star-mapping science satellite would need to wait until late November to give the requisite seven-week interval to prepare the rocket after the O3b launch in late September. ESA incurs substantial costs for each week of launch delay, meaning O3b had little launch-date maneuvering room.

Gaia and its launch team are already at the French Guiana spaceport preparing a launch around Nov. 20. It is unclear whether the O3b delay could advance that date, a scenario that conceivably could leave room for an O3b flight before the end of the year.

For 03b, placing the second batch of four satellites into operation triggers the start of commercial revenue. A third batch of four is scheduled to launch, also aboard a Europeanized Soyuz, in 2014.

Israel said Arianespace continues to struggle with mating one heavy and one lighter satellite for each Ariane 5 launch. Only in exceptional circumstances is Arianespace’s business model compatible with a sole commercial passenger aboard an Ariane 5.

The sensitivity of the business model was illustrated in 2013 when satellite fleet operator Optus of Australia pulled its Optus 10 satellite from the Arianespace launch manifest when Optus’ owner, SingTel of Singapore, sought to sell the satellite operator. SingTel has since decided not to sell Optus, but the company has yet to place Optus 10 back into the Arianespace launch manifest, industry officials said.

Withdrawal of the Optus 10 forced a delay in Ariane 5 launches as Arianespace sought a replacement passenger to launch as a co-passenger with the Astra 5B direct-broadcast television satellite owned by SES of Luxembourg.

Israel said the company is planning one more Ariane 5 launch this year — Astra 5B, now with the Amazonas 4A satellite owned by Hispasat of Spain — and hopes to conduct at least five Ariane 5 launches in 2014, with the possibility of one or two more depending on satellite readiness, plus four Soyuz and two Vega launches.


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