UPDATED Nov. 26, 4:39 p.m. EDT
PARIS — The Arianespace commercial launch consortium is telling its customers it is open to reducing the cost of flights for lighter satellites on the Ariane 5 rocket in response to the challenge posed by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel said Nov. 25.
“I have sent a signal to our customers telling them that I could review our pricing policy, within certain limits,” Israel said in an interview with Les Echos, a French financial newspaper. “I think they have appreciated this.”
Israel’s comments came on the day when Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), after a decade of rattling Arianespace’s cage, was preparing its first-ever launch into the geostationary transfer orbit used by most commercial telecommunications satellites, and the place where most commercial revenue is made.
SpaceX Chairman Elon Musk taunted Arianespace again on Nov. 24, the day before his company was scheduled to launch the SES-8 satellite owned by SES of Luxembourg.
“Unless the other rocket makers improve their technology rapidly, they will lose significant market share to the Falcon 9,” Musk said in a news briefing.
SpaceX’s Nov. 25 launch attempt was scrubbed by technical concerns late in the countdown. At press time, SpaceX was planning to make another attempt Nov. 28.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said: “Competition is always a good thing. It keeps people sharp. They [Arianespace and other competitors] may not look at it that way, but hopefully they’ll come to appreciate it in the future.”
Israel said Evry, France-based Arianespace, which has a more than 50 percent share of today’s global commercial launch market, is less worried about its position in the market for the heavier satellites it launches on each Ariane 5 because of the recent failures of Russia’s Proton rocket. Proton is Arianespace’s principal competitor for launching satellites weighing more than 5,000 kilograms.
The heavy-lift Ariane 5’s business model requires that it routinely launch two satellites at a time into geostationary transfer orbit. The heavier satellite is in top position. For these satellites Arianespace competes not only with Proton but also with the Russian-Ukrainian Sea Launch vehicle for customers.
But for each heavy satellite, Arianespace must find a lighter spacecraft to occupy the lower position on the Ariane 5 rocket. Up to now, the competition in this sector of the market has been less intense, as both Proton and Sea Launch typically launch one satellite at a time and are focused on the larger spacecraft.
But with the arrival of Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX on the scene, Arianespace has a direct competitor for those lighter satellites.
SES, which operates a fleet of 50-plus satellites, contracts for three or four launches per year, usually with Arianespace. But SES has given unbridled praise to SpaceX and its prices, which are substantially lower than what Arianespace charges, and has booked three more flight options with SpaceX after the SES-8 launch.
The size of the global commercial geostationary satellite launch market is no more than 20-25 satellites per year. The long-term loss of SES as a customer, even if only for the lighter satellites, would have serious consequences for Arianespace, the company that, in the early 1980s, all but invented the commercial launch business.
“I am looking at our pricing policy and if we must adapt it to the competition, we will,” Israel said. “We’ll look at the overall efficiency of the Ariane business with a view to optimizing it.”
Israel said there are more small telecommunications satellites being designed now than ever, a fact he attributed in part to the arrival of SpaceX, which has stimulated the market.
For heavier satellites, Israel said the recent failures of Proton rockets have driven customers to Arianespace.
Arianespace in the past has worked to develop a policy of pricing launches on a per-kilogram basis. Israel’s statements suggest the company is willing to de-couple the policy for lighter satellites from that used for heavier spacecraft to meet the SpaceX market threat.