Astrium to Market SpaceX Falcon 1 Launches in Europe

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PARIS Europe’s Astrium space hardware and services company will market Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Falcon 1 rocket to European governments under a 15-month agreement the two companies announced Sept. 9.

Astrium is a major shareholder in Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium, which is marketing a European version of Russia’s Soyuz rocket in an attempt to give European governments an alternative to the heavy-lift Ariane 5 and the small Vega rocket, both of which are scheduled to enter service in 2011.

The medium-lift Soyuz vehicle includes a dispenser capable of handling 100-kilogram satellites intended for low Earth orbit alongside a larger Earth observation or science satellite.

Astrium contracted with Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX in mid-2009 for a single Falcon 1e rocket, saying that between itself and its Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. subsidiary, a small-satellite specialist, it had several missions weighing less than 500 kilograms that needed to reach orbit in the coming years. No satellite has yet been assigned under this contract.

The Astrium-SpaceX agreement announced Sept. 9 here at the World Summit for Satellite Financing says the marketing agreement is for launches to occur by the end of 2015. An Astrium official said the agreement is for contracts booked before the end of 2011 for satellites to be launched before 2016, but may be renewed.

European governments have said their satellites will, where possible, be launched aboard European rockets, a policy that has been expanded to include the Russian-German Rockot vehicle. Crafting an agreement at this time gives Astrium and SpaceX a window of opportunity to secure a launch for a small government satellite before the launch schedules of Europe’s Soyuz and Vega rockets are confirmed.

The European Soyuz service debut has been repeatedly delayed and is now expected to occur in mid-2011. Vega is also expected to make its first flight in 2011.

The Astrium official said the agreement is for satellites too small to be launched as the main payloads on either European vehicle. By launching aboard a rocket that is dedicated to a small satellite, the official said, the government customer can secure maximum schedule flexibility.

“With dedicated launch services, customers with very small payloads can launch independently to low Earth orbit, giving them greater control over launch and launch schedule,” the Astrium-SpaceX statement said. “With the Falcon 1, these services can be provided at the world’s lowest cost per flight when compared to any other launch service provider.”

SpaceX has said that Falcon 1 is priced at $10.9 million per launch, with these prices holding until October and a possible revision. Falcon 1 is intended to launch satellites weighing up to 1,010 kilograms into a 185-kilometer circular orbit.