KOUROU, French Guiana — Europe’s launch service provider, Arianespace, is having discussions with the Russian space agency on a block buy of Soyuz rockets to be operated from Russia’s Baikonur spaceport and sold commercially for much less than the Europeanized Soyuz, Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel said.
The purchases would be made through Arianespace’s Starsem affiliate, in which both Evry, France-based Arianespace and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency are shareholders.
Starsem was created following French and Russian government endorsement in 1996 and has conducted 26 commercial launches from the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. But Starsem’s activities have been eclipsed by the arrival of Soyuz at Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America.
The Europeanized Soyuz recently completed its seventh successful launch from the Guiana Space Center. Arianespace and Roscosmos in March signed a contract, which was not announced until April 3, for seven more Soyuz rockets to be delivered to the European spaceport in time for launches starting in 2016 or 2017. Arianespace forecasts it will be conducting three Soyuz campaigns per year in the coming years.
The Europeanized Soyuz carries costs needed to cover the travel of up to 300 Russians to the spaceport for each launch campaign, plus their lodging and other expenses. It also includes operations costs that are higher than those for comparable activities at Baikonur.
European governments, with France assuming most of the charges, invested more than 500 million euros ($693 million) to bring Soyuz to the European spaceport to offer customers, particularly European governments, an alternative to the heavy-lift Ariane 5 and the Vega vehicle, which is for relatively small satellites.
Speaking with reporters here April 4, Israel said several commercial missions on the horizon would be suitable for neither the Europeanized Soyuz nor Vega. But these programs could be captured by Arianespace if it were able to offer a sharply reduced-price Soyuz launched from Baikonur.
He declined to identify the potential commercial missions, including constellations, which might utilize a Baikonur-launched Soyuz. Google and Facebook have both said they are investigating Earth observation constellations, although it remains unclear whether they will proceed to procurement.
Israel said Arianespace had considered ordering a larger batch of Europeanized Soyuz rockets from Roscosmos than the seven ultimately purchased. But in the end the company concluded that the Europeanized Soyuz contract should be separated from a possible batch of Soyuz rockets intended for Baikonur.
“We have no intention of starting an internal competition between Soyuz from CSG [the Guiana Space Center] and Soyuz from Baikonur,” Israel said. “The opportunities we are considering are those for which we have no solution from French Guiana. But we need more time to be sure these opportunities exist. That is why we decided to purchase seven Soyuz vehicles now, and to continue work with Roscosmos to see what we could offer” from Baikonur.
Israel declined to disclose the cost to Arianespace of the seven new Soyuz rockets. He said that given the production rate of Soyuz for Russia’s noncommercial requirements, there is no threat that the vehicle’s production line will be slowed or interrupted. That means there was no large advantage in making a larger order now.
Russian reports have estimated the seven-rocket order at 420 million euros.
Israel said negotiations with Roscosmos began with an Arianespace assessment of the commercial prices it could charge for Soyuz missions in the coming years. Using this as a benchmark, he said, the company eventually reached an agreement with the Russian agency. He said the final price was not far, taking account of inflation, from the company’s early estimate of the price.
Israel said the current difference between the cost of a Soyuz launched from Baikonur and the Europeanized Soyuz is not as large as it should be. If the new commercial opportunities beyond the reach of the French Guiana operation are to be captured by the Baikonur Soyuz, he said, costs will need to be lower.
“Today there is not a big difference in price” between the two vehicles’ operations, he said. “If we want to go for very aggressive deals, we need a bigger difference. We need to have a very aggressive price.”
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