PARIS — Europe’s Arianespace launch services provider on Jan. 6 said its record 11 launches in 2014 generated a record revenue of more than 1.37 billion euros ($1.8 billion) and that, if its rockets and satellite customers meet their commitments, 2015 should be at least as good.
The year was the first in which the long-predicted frontal competition between SpaceX and Arianespace produced its first results — a tie, at least in customer count. Each company reported nine contracts for commercial satellites heading toward geostationary orbit, the usual destination of telecommunications spacecraft.
Whether this duopoly will continue unchallenged by other entrants is unclear. Russia’s Proton rocket has been hobbled by reliability issues and by the market’s quick turn to lighter satellites. Proton and the commercial Sea Launch AG venture, which uses a floating platform in the Pacific Ocean, both specialize in larger satellites.
Arianespace in early 2014 said it would be reducing its prices for lighter satellites to meet the SpaceX challenge. Left unsaid was that, with Proton and Sea Launch out of the market’s favor, Arianespace has been able to increase prices for heavier satellites riding in the Ariane 5 rocket’s upper berth.
Evry, France-based Arianespace declined to provide a 2014 profit estimate, saying its 2014 books would not be closed before this spring.
Arianespace’s record revenue was generated from six launches of the heavy-lift Ariane 5 vehicle, four launches of the Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket and one liftoff of the new Vega small-satellite vehicle.
The 38 percent revenue increase is a direct function of the increased launch rate. In 2013, the company saw revenue drop by 26 percent as it was able to conduct only four Ariane 5 launches, versus six planned, plus two Soyuz vehicles.
Despite 100 million euros in annual support from the European Space Agency, designed to permit Arianespace to offset certain fixed costs, the company reported a slight loss that it was able to cover with its own cash reserves.
Faced with increased competitive pressure from low-cost launch provider Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, California, Arianespace had asked European governments to increase their annual support payments to 116 million euros starting in 2015.
Perhaps because of the spectacular decline in the value of the euro relative to the U.S. dollar in 2014 — a decline that is good news for any company that, like Arianespace, incurs its costs in euros but sells its products in dollars — European governments in December agreed only to a 5 percent increase in support payments, to 105 million euros per year for 2015 and 2016.
In a press briefing here, Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel said the company expects to match, or even exceed, its 2014 launch cadence with a 12th campaign at the end of 2015.
In addition to operating three different vehicles from different launch pads at Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport on the northeast coast of South America, Arianespace’s core Ariane 5 vehicle in most cases needs two commercial telecommunications satellites to be ready at the same time, with their respective masses compatible with the Ariane 5 liftoff capability, to run its business.
That means the company depends on its customers — and its customers’ satellite builders — to announce in advance any changes to their schedules to allow Arianespace to find new pairings for the Ariane 5.
Israel said the company should be able to conduct six or seven Ariane 5 launches in 2015, plus two Soyuz and three Vega campaigns.
The Galileo Question
How the European Commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation European Union, acts toward Arianespace will be a factor in the 2015 manifest.
An August Soyuz launch of the first two of the commission’s Galileo Full Operational Capability positioning, navigation and timing satellites placed the satellites in the wrong orbit.
Soyuz has since returned to flight with the same Fregat upper stage that malfunctioned in August, in launches for the Russian government and the December launch of four O3b commercial broadband satellites, placed into an 8,000-kilomeer, equatorial orbit.
Arianespace and Fregat builder Lavochkin of Moscow agreed to a series of Fregat manufacturing improvements called for by an inquiry board investigating the August failure.
Israel said the full set of recommendations, including design-related issues, would be met by March. A Soyuz vehicle is available then to launch two more Galileo satellites, with a second pair to be launched in fall. There is also a possibility of a third Soyuz launch late in 2015, Israel said.
But the commission and ESA have ordered three Ariane 5 rockets, in that vehicle’s ES version, to carry four Galileo satellites at a time.
To carry those spacecraft, Ariane 5 prime contractor Airbus Defence and Space was contracted to build a special payload dispenser. That has been done, and an Ariane 5 could be ready by mid-2015 for Galileo, Israel said.
Still yet to be done is for the Galileo satellites, built by OHB AG of Bremen, Germany, to be certified ready to withstand the mechanical and acoustic vibration under the Ariane 5 fairing.
Israel said that could be accomplished by late 2015. He said he expected that the commission and ESA would inform Arianespace in January as to whether they are willing to return to Soyuz for launches starting in March, or prefer to use an Ariane 5 late in the year.
Arianespace Commercial Director Jacques Breton said more than 30 commercial telecommunications satellites bound for geostationary orbit were ordered in 2014, with 28 of them managed as open launch competitions. Eighteen of these have been put under contract by Arianespace or SpaceX, leaving 10 to be contracted in 2015, plus whatever number of new satellite orders are concluded during the year.
Breton said that 2015 should be at least as good a year for satellite orders as 2014. As of Jan. 1, Arianespace’s backlog stood at 4.1 billion euros.