Second group of O3b satellites launch on a Europeanized Soyuz. Credit: Arianespace

KOUROU, French Guiana — A confrontation between the European Commission and the world’s second-largest commercial satellite fleet operator about priority access to a June launch slot appears to have been resolved with delays in the delivery of the commission’s spacecraft, government and industry officials said.

As a result, a June slot for a Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket is all but certain to be given to O3b Networks, a startup broadband satellite operator that badly needs to add to its in-orbit constellation.

Based in Britain’s Channel Islands, O3b’s biggest shareholder is SES of Luxembourg, one of the biggest customers for European Ariane 5 heavy-lift rockets, which are operated alongside Soyuz and the small-satellite Vega launcher at Europe’s spaceport here on the northeast coast of South America.

O3b and SES had asked launch service provider Arianespace to reserve the June Soyuz launch for four O3b satellites. The sooner they were launched, O3b and SES said, the less likely it was that a defect on the current four-satellite constellation would lead to a shutdown of O3b’s fledgling commercial business.

But the European Commission, which has become perhaps Arianespace’s biggest single customer, was adamant that it wanted three Soyuz launches this year to be able to provide initial services from its Galileo positioning, navigation and timing constellation by late this year or early 2015.

Four Galileo satellites are in orbit. The commission had said that a minimum of 10 were needed to provide initial services, meaning the equivalent of three Soyuz campaigns, each carrying two Galileo satellites.

Both O3b and Galileo are late, having missed launch opportunities in 2013. O3b needed to correct the defect in the first four satellites, discovered only weeks before the second O3b launch. Galileo’s first two satellites were delayed when it developed that their antennas would need to be replaced.

But Galileo and O3b have now overcome these problems and, until recently, were both targeting arrivals here sometime in April. That would force Arianespace into a difficult choice.

O3b has said its four satellites are ready for delivery. Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel, briefing reporters here April 4 after the Soyuz launch, confirmed that the O3b spacecraft were packed and ready for shipment from continental Europe as early as the week of April 7.

Two officials said the prime minister of Luxembourg wrote the 20-nation European Space Agency, among others, urging that O3b not be shunted aside because of political pressure from the European Commission to launch Galileo.

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, speaking to reporters here April 3 after the Soyuz launch, said it now appeared that the two Galileo satellites would not be shipped before the first week of May.

It is Arianespace’s job to decide launch priority, Dordain said, adding that political pressure from Luxembourg on the one hand and the European Commission on the other is a normal reaction of people defending their home teams.

Dordain also said that Galileo needs only eight satellites in orbit, not 10, to begin initial services. He said he remains committed to delivering six satellites to the spaceport in 2014, but that even if only four of them are launched, ESA can keep its word to the European Commission with respect to the start of Galileo services by early 2015.

Israel declined to say how Arianespace would decide the issue, but stressed that any decision would made only after consulting with ESA, the European Commission and O3b.

Arianespace’s past policy has been to accord launch slots on a first-come, first-served basis in cases when satellites miss their initially contracted launch dates.

Arianespace has scheduled three more Soyuz launches in 2014 after the successful first mission April 3. O3b has another four-satellite pack awaiting launch and had hoped for a slot late this year. That is now likely to slip to 2015, industry officials said.

Assuming it secures two launches this year starting in August, the commission’s Galileo program has 18 more satellites to launch. Officials said it is possible that O3b and Galileo will be fighting anew next year for the earliest possible Soyuz slot.


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