Editorial | Tough Balancing Act for Arianespace

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Launch services provider Arianespace routinely juggles a complicated manifest involving three rockets, the largest of which is designed to carry two satellites at a time — typically for different customers. This task is made immeasurably more difficult by late-arriving satellites, which force the company to constantly rearrange schedules and delay launches, sometimes at the expense of a customer that delivered its satellite on time.

On rare occasions, this process can lead to situations where Arianespace must choose between two late-arriving customers vying for the same backup launch slot. The company faced that uncomfortable prospect recently with two key customers: the European Union, owner of the Galileo satellite navigation system, and O3b Networks, the broadband services startup whose majority shareholder is SES, the world’s second-largest satellite operator by revenue. 

Both customers had already missed scheduled launch dates in 2013 and were angling for the second of four planned launches this year of the Europeanized Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Kourou, French Guiana, spaceport. Both put the heat on Arianespace to give them the June slot. O3b reportedly sought help from the government of Luxembourg, home to SES, to put pressure on the European Space Agency, which paid to develop Arianespace’s workhorse Ariane 5 rocket and provides annual support subsidies to the launch provider. ESA also is managing the Galileo program on behalf of the European Union.  

To be fair, O3b and the European Union are feeling their own pressures. O3b faces a possible interruption of its initial Internet backbone service due to a defect on its first four satellites, which was discovered only after they launched last June. The European Union, meanwhile, needed to have 10 satellites in orbit by the end of this year to begin initial Galileo services in 2015 as planned. Currently there are four Galileo satellites in orbit, and subsequent craft are being launched in pairs, meaning the program needs all three remaining Soyuz slots this year to hold to its latest schedule.

Fortunately for Arianespace, the situation apparently resolved itself following acknowledgement by ESA that the next two Galileo satellites will not be delivered before the first week of May. That effectively conceded the June launch slot to O3b, whose satellites — O3b’s craft are launched four-at-a-time aboard Soyuz — were scheduled to arrive at Kourou before the end of April.

But with both customers still feeling a sense of urgency to quickly build out their respective constellations, Arianespace could find itself in the same situation early next year. Should it come to that, Arianespace will have to make a choice that will inevitably leave one important customer very unhappy.

In such situations, Arianespace’s decision should be based on an objective assessment of which customer needs the launch slot more badly, as opposed to who is able to exert the most political or business pressure. As ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain said, lobbying by customers on their own behalf is to be expected. But in the end, both customers — the European Union and O3b would not be in this situation if they delivered their satellites on time — should accept and respect Arianespace’s decision without threat of retribution, implied or otherwise.