Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel (left), Arianespace, shakes hands with Airbus Defence and Space's space division chief François Auque during the signing ceremony for Astrium's contract for 18 additional Ariane 5 launchers. Credit: CNES

PARIS — Airbus Defence and Space, formerly known as Astrium Space Transportation, will build 18 heavy-lift Ariane 5 rockets for delivery starting in 2017 under a contract valued at more than 2 billion euros ($2.7 billion), Astrium announced Dec. 14.

The contract, with launch services provider Arianespace of Evry, France, was signed at Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in South America, which is French territory, in the presence of French President Francois Hollande.

Arianespace had previously contracted with Astrium for Ariane 5 long-lead items to assure that the vehicles arrive as scheduled.

The precise value of the contract was not disclosed, but Airbus Defence and Space said the deal’s terms reflect “a significant improvement” in the price-to-performance ratio compared with the previous 35-vehicle contract, which was signed in 2009.

Arianespace said in a statement that the new order brings to 38 the number of Ariane 5 rockets under construction or under contract.

Airbus Defence and Space, as prime contractor for the Ariane 5 rocket, is a major shareholder in Arianespace, alongside the French space agency, CNES. Other Ariane 5 contractors have smaller Arianespace stakes.

Airbus Defence and Space managers recently called for a thorough overhaul of the Ariane contractor mix with a view to reducing prices to stay viable in the competitive world commercial launch market.

Vega Orders for Unnamed Customers

Meanwhile, Arianespace on Dec. 17 said it had signed a commercial contract with a single customer for two Vega vehicles, with the launches to occur in 2017 and 2018.

Arianespace did not name the customer, but the dates correspond to when the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST) plans to launch its next Earth observation spacecraft — one optical, one equipped with an X-band radar imager.

Europe’s Vega small-satellite launch vehicle has made just two flights, both of them successful. On the second, VAST’s VNREDSat-1 Earth observation satellite was one of the passengers.

Vietnam has an active Earth observation satellite development program designed in part to nurture a national capability to build spacecraft without recourse to foreign providers.

For now, Vietnam has cast a wide net for suppliers. Europe’s Astrium Satellites built VNREDSat-1. Belgium’s Spacebel is leading the consortium building the VNREDSat-1b optical satellite, and Japan’s NEC Corp. is building the two LOTUSat spacecraft, both with X-band radar sensors, for launch in 2018 and 2020.

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