Logjam at European Spaceport Puts Arianespace in a Ticklish Spot

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BRUSSELS — Europe’s Arianespace launch operator faces a repeat of early 2013’s bottleneck for the Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket but is less likely this year to be spared the chore of saying no to one customer in favor of another.

Evry, France-based Arianespace is facing the further complication of the fact that launch delays caused by late-arriving satellites in 2013 — for Soyuz and for heavy-lift Ariane 5 rockets — have forced the company to plan a record of up to 14 launches this year. This includes seven or eight Ariane 5s, four Soyuz vehicles and one or two light-class Vega rockets.

During a two-day space policy summit at the European Commission’s headquarters here, European government officials made clear their preference that three Soyuz launches of Galileo positioning, navigation and timing satellites, and one of the Sentinel 1A radar spacecraft for Europe’s Copernicus Earth observation system, take place this year. 

But a commercial customer, O3b Networks of Britain’s Channel Islands, also has reserved a Soyuz launch slot and is under commercial pressure to put satellites into operation as soon as possible. That makes five payload packages vying for only four Soyuz slots in 2014.

Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the 20-nation European Space Agency, said he had informed the European Commission — which owns both the Galileo and Copernicus constellations — that the Galileo and Sentinel launches would be maintained unless the satellites encountered last-minute hurdles in testing.

Satellite delays are what spared Arianespace in 2013.

European Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani made clear he is determined to see six more Galileo satellites in orbit in 2014 so that the commission can declare that Galileo is ready to provide early in-orbit services. Four Galileo spacecraft are already in orbit. With 10 satellites, initial services can begin.

Under ESA’s current planning, Soyuz launches of Galileo satellites, two at a time, would occur in June, October and December.

Tajani said European taxpayers, who through the commission have just agreed to spend 6.3 billion euros ($8.5 billion) on the Galileo and Egnos satellite navigation programs between 2014 and 2020, will not tolerate program delays and cost overruns. He has previously threatened financial penalties for cost overruns due to delays.

Dordain tried to lessen the pressure on launch dates, saying Galileo and Copernicus are technically complicated efforts and that it is better to be sure of their readiness than to rush to launch. “I’m sorry, Mr. Vice President, but risk sometimes causes delays, and we’ve occasionally had them,” Dordain said.

The coming Galileo satellites are being manufactured by a new industrial team, led by OHB AG of Bremen, Germany, with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain building the electronics payloads. These satellites — 22 are on order — are about a year late in being delivered, and their nonavailability in 2013 was one reason a conflict on Soyuz priorities was avoided.

OHB Chief Executive Marco R. Fuchs said here Jan. 28 that the first OHB-built Galileo spacecraft has cleared thermal-vacuum testing and the second is midway through the multiweek test cycle, occurring at an ESA facility in Noordwijk, Netherlands.

Dordain and the European Commission have also promised that Sentinel 1A, another holdover from 2013, will be fit for delivery to Europe’s Guiana Space Center in South America for a launch by mid-April.

Sentinel 1A will be the first satellite for Copernicus, a multibillion-euro satellite system for environmental monitoring.

Like Galileo, Copernicus’ technical development is being overseen by ESA. Volker Liebig, ESA’s director of Earth observation, said an early-April launch of Sentinel 1A remains feasible. But in an interview, Liebig said the program’s schedule currently has zero margin, meaning that any hiccup in testing will automatically produce a delay in the satellite’s shipment date.

Arianespace has long said that one of its distinguishing characteristics is that it does not push aside its commercial customers to make way for European government satellites.

But the pressure from ESA, and especially the European Commission, on the company was palpable during the two-day conference here. Speaker after speaker hailed the coming year as the one when Galileo and Copernicus take major steps in the form of highly visible launches.

All this put Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel in a delicate position. Addressing the conference, Israel said the commission is Arianespace’s biggest single customer, accounting for more than 1 billion euros of the company’s total backlog of more than 4 billion euros.

Sitting quietly in the back of the conference room was O3b Chief Executive Steve Collar. Collar said the satellite timing unit glitch that had forced his late-2013 launch to move to 2014 has been remedied and that the satellites would be ready to launch “within two weeks” once Arianespace gives a launch date. O3b has been tentatively set for a June launch. Collar said he is confident that his launch slot is secure in mid-2014.

While only one batch of O3b satellites has been launched to date, the company is already experienced in defending its launch slots against showcase European government programs. 

One industry official said Arianespace, under its contract with O3b, could be subject to financial penalties if it misses the June slot by more than a few weeks.

One possible way to relieve the pressure: Use a modified Ariane 5 rocket to carry four Galileo satellites into medium Earth orbit rather than two Soyuz rockets.

Israel said a development program led by Ariane 5 prime contractor Airbus Defence and Space to adapt Ariane 5 for a Galileo launch is on schedule and would be ready for a late-2014 launch.

While that would solve one Arianespace problem, it could create another by depriving two telecommunications customers of their planned launch.

 

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes


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