Arianespace 2009 Revenue Boosted by Higher Launch Rate

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PARIS — Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium on Jan. 5 reported 2009 revenue of 1.046 billion euros ($1.5 billion), a 9.4 percent increase over 2008 that was largely due to the fact that it launched seven heavy-lift Ariane 5 rockets, a record rate for a calendar year.

The company said launch prices worldwide, which in dollar terms have been drifting up in the past two years, have continued to rise in the wake of the mid-2009 Chapter 11 bankruptcy of commercial launch provider Sea Launch Co.

Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said the company will report a slight profit when it closes its financial accounts in the spring. In 2008, the Evry, France-based company reported a net profit of 2.5 million euros on revenue of 955.7 million euros. Six Ariane 5 launches were conducted that year.

Le Gall said the company has been able to mitigate its exposure to the decline of the U.S. dollar by purchasing exchange-rate contracts that protect company revenue from the dollar’s fluctuation. Nonetheless, he said, Arianespace continues to face challenges because its costs are in euros and its revenue mainly in dollars. Further complicating matters for the company is that its biggest competitor, International Launch Services (ILS) of Reston, Va., which sells the Russian Proton rocket commercially, incurs most of its rocket-development costs in Russian rubles.

Arianespace’s rocket hardware suppliers, led by Astrium Space Transportation, are also the company’s shareholders. The launch-services provider therefore is under less pressure to report a large profit and distribute dividends insofar as its supply chain is kept busy with profitable orders. Arianespace ordered 35 Ariane 5 rockets in February 2009 in a contract valued at slightly more than 4 billion euros.

In a press briefing here, Le Gall said Arianespace expects to launch six or seven Ariane 5 rockets in 2010. The first launch of the year, scheduled for mid-March, will carry the Astra 3B commercial telecommunications satellite for SES of Luxembourg and the German Defense Ministry’s ComsatBw-2 military communications satellite.

The company conducted seven Ariane 5 launches in 2009, but Le Gall warned that the overall market in 2010 likely will see a reduction in the number of commercial satellite contracts.

By Arianespace’s count, 34 satellite construction contracts were announced in 2009, of which 25 were subject to competition. Ten of these commercially competed spacecraft have already been assigned launch vehicles, leaving just 15 satellites that will be subject to competition in 2010 between Arianespace and ILS.

In a Jan. 5 response to Space News inquiries, ILS said it counts 19 satellites that were ordered in 2009 without launch-vehicle designations, several of which include unassigned options for future satellites.

“Our estimates indicate that there will be 20 to 25 launch awards this year,” including launch slots that had been booked previously but for which a specific satellite had not been assigned, ILS said. “We think that 2010 will be a lower-than-usual year for satellite orders but a typical year for commercial launch.” ILS said its 2010 manifest has at least one slot remaining available for late in the year, with other slots available in 2011.

As he has in the past, Le Gall took sharp issue with those satellite-fleet operators — including SES and Intelsat of Bermuda and Washington — that say a global commercial market dominated by Arianespace and ILS is insufficient to meet market demand.

Arianespace and ILS together are capable of accommodating 20 or more commercial telecommunications satellites per year, he said. “Some [satellite] operators say there is a launcher shortage, but what they really mean is that there is a shortage of inexpensive launchers,” Le Gall said.

For Arianespace, Long Beach, Calif.-based Sea Launch for several years offered launch prices that were unsustainably low and ultimately contributed to the company’s current bankruptcy reorganization. With Sea Launch out of the picture, prices have risen for both Arianespace and ILS.

Arianespace in mid-2010 expects to begin operating Russia’s Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana, with three Soyuz launches planned this year from a new launch pad nearing completion. In addition, the Vega small-satellite launcher may be ready to make its inaugural flight in late 2010, from a separate launch pad at the Guiana Space Center.

Both the Soyuz and Vega launch installations are being financed by the European Space Agency.

Soyuz and Vega will permit Arianespace to capture the market for European government satellites that are too small to be launched economically aboard Ariane 5. Le Gall specifically mentioned the second-generation radar reconnaissance satellites now being developed by Germany and Italy, which used Russian and U.S. rockets to launch their first-generation radar satellites.

Soyuz will have the additional role of launching commercial satellites weighing up to 3,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, the destination of most telecommunications spacecraft. Arianespace hopes to conduct three Soyuz launch campaigns in 2010, assuming the first occurs without incident this summer.

Ariane 5’s current standard operating procedure is to launch two telecommunications satellites with a combined weight of 8,700 kilograms. A series of small improvements in the vehicle being implemented in 2010 will increase the Ariane 5 capacity to 9,100 kilograms by late 2010.