Ariane 5 launch
NASA is continuing to study a concern about residual air pressure inside the Ariane 5's payload fairing that could overstress parts of the James Webb Space Telescope's sunshield during launch. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace

WASHINGTON — The head of Arianespace asked European governments to provide his company with more support in order to balance what he called government support of American competitors “with no precedent.”

At a Jan. 7 press briefing, Stéphane Israël, chief executive of Arianespace, said the company completed 2020 with revenues of about one billion euros ($1.2 billion), approximately the same as 2019. He added that while the company hasn’t completed its accounting for 2020, the company should have “balanced financials” for the year.

While he called those financial results “very good news,” Israël was concerned about Arianespace’s ability to compete with American companies, particularly SpaceX, citing U.S. government spending on space that is far greater than the combination of the European Space Agency, European Union and national governments in Europe.

“What is happening in the U.S. must be taken into consideration for the European strategy because there is a level of public money with no precedent, and it is clear that our competitor is benefiting from this money,” he said. Throughout the 90-minute briefing he often referred to SpaceX as only “our competitor.”

An example of that is the National Security Space Launch awards made in August to SpaceX and United Launch Alliance. That included an initial award of $316 million to SpaceX for a single launch, which SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell later said included infrastructure and other costs in addition to the launch itself. “It’s quite impressive,” Israël said of the contract.

He said he was not criticizing the support that companies like SpaceX receive from the U.S. government, but rather saw it as evidence that European governments need to step up. “There is a very strong case to renew the public-private partnership around Ariane 6 and Vega C for this decade and create the conditions for a more balanced competition between Europe and our competitor in the United States.”

Asked later in the briefing to elaborate, Israël referred to a bulk order of Ariane 6 and Vega C launches expected this year by the European Commission for the Galileo and Copernicus programs. EU officials last year described the order as being worth one billion euros, although Israël said the actual value of the deal has not yet been finalized.

“For the first time in European history, the European Commission is going to order a bulk procurement of Ariane 6 and Vega C vehicles for the missions they want us to deliver during the 2021–27 budget,” he said. “At a level with no precedent, we will have a bulk order of Galileo and Copernicus missions.”

Arianespace may also have a role in a proposed low Earth orbit broadband constellation being studied by the EU. In December, the EU awarded a contract valued at 7.1 million euros to a consortium of nine companies, including Arianespace, for initial studies of a satellite system that could provide both secure communications for European governments as well as broadband connectivity for the public.

If the EU does proceed with such a system, Israël said it would likely be developed as a public-private partnership, or PPP. “Our understanding is that what the European Commission has in mind is, at the end of the day, a PPP project, but we are at the very preliminary step of this story.”

Plans for 2021

Arianespace conducted 10 launches in 2020: three of its Ariane 5 vehicle, five by Soyuz rockets and two Vega missions, one of which failed. Israël predicted that the company will exceed that launch rate in 2021, with “more than one launch per month” pending the availability of payloads.

The company currently expects to perform three Ariane 5 launches in the year, two with commercial satellites and the third carrying NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Israël said the launch of JWST remained on schedule for the end of October. The first equipment needed to support that launch will arrive in French Guiana six months before the launch, with the spacecraft itself arriving eight weeks before launch. A fourth Ariane 5 launch is possible if other commercial satellites are ready in time.

There are eight Ariane 5 launches left before the vehicle is retired, which Israël said is likely to be by the end of 2022 but could slip to 2023 depending on when customers deliver their payloads. The first launch of the Ariane 6 is now scheduled for the second quarter of 2022. OneWeb was to be the inaugural customer for the Ariane 6 but withdrew after restructuring its contract to exclusively use Soyuz rockets.

Israël noted that first Ariane 6 launch is primarily a qualification mission for ESA, limiting the potential payloads that can use it. For example, he said it’s unlikely it could be used for a geostationary communications satellite. He said Arianespace is in discussions with a potential customer for that launch, but “it’s too early to say whether it will materialize.”

The Vega is expected to return to launch by the end of March as Avio, the prime contractor for that small launch vehicle, implements recommendations of an investigation released Dec. 18 of the Nov. 16 launch failure. “We will work very hard with Avio” to make sure they carry out those recommendations, he said. “I am confident that, after this unfortunate event, Vega will be more reliable than what it has been.” Arianespace is planning three Vega launches in 2021, as well as the first launch of the upgraded Vega C.

The biggest wild card in the launch schedule is the Soyuz and OneWeb. “We can make one launch per month” of OneWeb satellites on Soyuz rockets, he said, with the limiting factor the delivery of satellites for launch, rather than the production of the rockets themselves or access to launch facilities in French Guiana, Baikonur and Vostochny. “I’m not sure that we will have to deliver as much as that for OneWeb, but we are ready to deliver one Soyuz per month for OneWeb if the satellites are available.”

Because of that uncertainty, Israël was reticent to give a “magic number” of launches he expected Arianespace to conduct in 2021. “It will really depend at the end of the day on our customer availability. Our launchers are here and ready for flight,” he said. “More than 10, less than 20. Something in the middle, maybe. We will see.”

The commercial GEO satellite market, which long accounted for the bulk of Arianespace’s commercial business, has been weak in the last few years but rebounded to 20 orders in 2020. That was thanks in large part to a wave of C-band replacements ordered by operators Intelsat and SES as part of those companies’ agreements with the Federal Communications Commission to clear a portion of satellite C-band spectrum in the United States for 5G applications.

Israël said Arianespace expected about 15 GEO satellite orders a year for the near future, not as high as 2020 but above the lows of a few years ago. “This market is making a comeback, but nevertheless, it will not be at the level of what was the market in the decade of the 2000s,” he said, when there was an average of about two dozen orders a year. “It will be more dynamic than it was in ’18 and ’19.”

The company was also open to launching other LEO satellite constellations, like Amazon’s Project Kuiper. “We are fully at the disposal of each and every opportunity which is looking for a launcher,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...