Satellite Operators Urge Swift Development of Ariane 6

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PARIS — The president of the European Satellite Operators Association (ESOA) on Nov. 19 applauded the apparent agreement between France and Germany on a next-generation Ariane 6 rocket and said the vehicle needs to be in service as quickly as possible.

If it is not, said Eutelsat Chief Executive Michel de Rosen, ESOA’s president, SpaceX of the United States will establish itself as a leader in the commercial market — a position from which it will not be dislodged easily.

“Our ESOA message: Hurry up,” de Rosen said in a briefing here less than two weeks before European governments are set to meet to decide Ariane 6’s funding and development period. “Each year that passes will see SpaceX advance, gain market share and further reduce its costs through economies of scale.”

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has already begun to take market share from Europe’s Arianespace launch service provider, mainly for the launch of satellites that would sit in the current heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket’s lower position, which is reserved for the smaller of two satellites the vehicle carries to orbit for commercial customers.

Evry, France-based Arianespace has responded by squeezing, to a limited degree, its supplier base. But Ariane 5 builders are also Arianespace shareholders, limiting the company’s leverage on them.

Arianespace has also begun reducing prices for satellites in the Ariane 5 lower position, in part by raising prices for the heavier, upper-berth satellites.

Yohann Leroy, Eutelsat’s chief technical officer, said this policy has been possible in part because the Ariane 5’s competitors for heavy satellites — the Russian Proton and Zenit/Sea Launch rockets — have confronted quality-control and supply-chain issues.

Leroy said this situation will not last long, especially if, as scheduled, SpaceX introduces its Falcon Heavy sometime in 2015 and thereby competes for 6,000-kilogram-class satellites as well as lighter spacecraft.

Asked whether Eutelsat, the world’s third-largest commercial satellite fleet operator by revenue, considered the Proton and Zenit rockets out of the commercial market, de Rosen said Eutelsat has been told that the Russian government will do what it takes to keep both vehicles viable in the market.

Eutelsat, de Rosen said, pointedly asked SpaceX in September what its medium-term Falcon 9 pricing policy would be. The company wondered whether SpaceX would raise prices once it had secured a sizable share of the commercial market.

SpaceX’s response, he said, was that Falcon pricing would remain stable for a time and then head down, not up, as new technology, scale economies and partial reuse of the vehicle produced their intended effects.

While de Rosen occasionally sounded like a cheerleader for Team France or Team Europe — his company has historically favored both Ariane 5 and European satellite builders — he said Eutelsat would make no guarantees with respect to Ariane 6.

“If they meet their objectives in terms of flexibility and reliability, then we would certainly look favorably on the vehicle,” de Rosen said, adding that Eutelsat had already volunteered to place one of its satellites on the inaugural Ariane 6 flight.

“We are just the customers. What we want, as satellite operators, is at least three launch options. We don’t want anyone in a monopoly position.”

The 20-nation European Space Agency asked ESOA to weigh in with its opinions early on in the Ariane 6 design process, a move that helped change the Ariane 6 design over the past two years.

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, de Rosen said, has been the driving force behind this evolution. “Without Dordain, there would be no Ariane 6,” he said.

Leroy said the decision to design an Ariane 6 with two liquid-fueled stages instead of a solid-fueled first stage “helps future-proof the vehicle and make it more adaptable. For example, any move to reusability, of the sort SpaceX is trying, would need liquid-fueled engines.”

SpaceX currently charges about $60 million for a single satellite launched on a Falcon 9. The Ariane 64 vehicle that appears on the verge of acceptance by European governments is expected to cost about 91 million euros to build and launch, leading to a price, in 2014 economic conditions, of 115 million euros ($144M) for a full vehicle with two satellites. The Ariane 6 vehicle, assuming its 4.3 billion euros in development funding is approved in December, is scheduled to be operational in 2020.

Neither Eutelsat nor ESOA appeared overly concerned about this price difference. Presented with a competitive challenge, de Rosen said, Europe’s industry is likely to rise to the occasion.