WASHINGTON — Commercial launch service providers on March 11 raised the possibility of Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket becoming American, the international Sea Launch becoming Russian and the high-cost Japanese H-2A rocket becoming cost competitive.
All three scenarios would mean radical changes for the current systems and address problems that each of them has in maintaining or establishing a position in a market characterized by no more than 20-25 geostationary-orbiting commercial telecommunications satellites being competed for launch in a given year.
The most surprising of the declarations came from Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel, whose Evry, France-based company sees an opening to the now out-of-reach U.S. government market in the U.S. Air Force deliberation over whether U.S. government space system managers should seek a diversity of launch options. Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon 9 rocket is bidding to launch military satellites and is on a path toward U.S. Air Force certification.
Israel, whose high-cost Ariane 5 industrial supply chain is already preparing for a Big Bang-type reorganization as it prepares for the next-generation Ariane 6 vehicle, would be obliged to share its work with U.S. contractors if Ariane 5 were to be eligible to launch U.S. government payloads.
“As far as the employment aspect, we are ready to see how we could Americanize our rocket in return for U.S. government business,” Israel said, adding that U.S. rockets occasionally launch European government satellites.
Members of the 20-nation European Space Agency are encouraged to use the heavy-lift Ariane 5, the medium-lift Europeanized Russian Soyuz and the light Vega rockets for all their government missions. With few exceptions, most do this.
The most recent example of an exception is the German government’s second-generation radar reconnaissance satellite system, SARah. The three SARah satellites are scheduled for launch on two SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.
However, the launch contract is not with the German government, but with OHB AG of Bremen, Germany, which is the SARah prime contractor and was given leeway in determining who would conduct the launches. The first-generation constellation, the five-satellite SAR-Lupe system, was launched aboard Russian vehicles.
The Italian government is weighing several options for the launch of its two second-generation Cosmo-Skymed radar reconnaissance satellites.
Israel did not detail how the Ariane 5, launched from Europe’s Guiana Space Center on the northeast coast of South America, might be sufficiently “Americanized” to pass muster with the U.S. government and qualify for government satellite business.
Sea Launch AG of Bern, Switzerland, is owned by an affiliate of RSC Energia of Korolev, Russia, which is Russian government-owned. Its home port is Long Beach, Calif.
But the Sea Launch Zenit-3SL rocket is operated from a floating equatorial platform in the Pacific Ocean in international waters, disqualifying it as a Russian rocket. Russian government officials in recent months have raised the possibility of relocating Sea Launch to Russian territorial waters, a move that would give it access to Russian government missions.
Sea Launch Chief Executive Sergey Gugkaev said he would have no problem with a move to an ocean location off Russia’s Far East, but only if the move came with a guarantee that Sea Launch could bid for large Russian government satellites against Khrunichev Space Center’s Proton rocket.
Gugkaev said discussions about Sea Launch’s possible move to Russia are “part of the big reform in the Russian space industry. Our opinion is that if these changes would allow us to get more market share — more Russian satellites from Roscosmos — then it would be a good thing for us.” Roscosmos is Russia’s space agency.
Japan’s H-2A rocket is viewed by global insurance underwriters as a reliable vehicle, but it has not been a force in the commercial satellite launch market because of its high price.
Naohiko Abe, director of the business development department for space systems at H-2A prime contractor Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. (MHI), said his company has set a target of a 50 percent cost reduction by 2020.
In the meantime, less-dramatic improvements in the vehicle’s cost structure through the enhanced H-2A allowed MHI to win a contract to launch its first commercial satellite, the Telstar 12 Vantage telecommunications satellite owned by Telesat of Canada.
The launch, scheduled for late 2015, will be the inaugural flight of the enhanced H-2A. Abe said MHI “offered a good price … a special price” to Telesat in return for being the inaugural customer. “Telesat accepted a small risk,” Abe said.
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