Delays Continue To Affect Vega, European Soyuz Programs
PARIS — The European version of Russia’s Soyuz rocket will be unable to conduct more than its inaugural flight this year, rather than the two launches planned earlier, and Europe’s new light-lift rocket, Vega, is unlikely to make its debut until early in 2011, the head of thelaunch consortium said.
Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall also said the company has secured the approval of its shareholders for a capital augmentation of 50 million euros ($66.2 million). The fresh cash will give the Evry, France-based company the flexibility to make investments to improve the performance of the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket, including the shock-absorption system used when the Ariane 5 fairing separates into two halves and is propelled away from the rocket.
A new version of this system, called HSS-3, was used in the May 2009 launch of Europe’s Herschel and Planck astronomy satellites. The separation resulted in the two fairing halves coming closer to the satellite payload than had been predicted.
In its 2009 annual report, released the week of April 26, Arianespace reported a loss of 71.2 million euros in 2009 on revenue of 1.029 billion euros. Le Gall said the loss was caused by provisions the company had taken out for unspecified “technical and commercial risks.”
The revenue figure was up 7.7 percent over 2008, reflecting the launch of a record seven Ariane 5 rockets for the year. Arianespace says in its annual report that the prevailing commercial launch prices remained relatively low in 2009 “because of the commercial aggressiveness of,” or , the Reston, Va.-based company that markets Russia’s Proton rocket and is Arianespace’s chief competitor.
Arianespace and ILS often trade allegations about who is responsible for what pricing trend, but ILS officials conceded in 2009 that the low value of the Russian ruble on foreign-exchange markets enabled them to reduce the price of some Proton rockets.
Arianespace’s backlog at Dec. 31 stood at 4.3 billion euros, consisting of 33 commercial telecommunications satellites to be sent to geostationary transfer orbit, 17 missions for the medium-lift Soyuz and six flights of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, which carries cargo to the international space station.
With the arrival of the Soyuz and Vega vehicles, Arianespace will be supporting a three-rocket service from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana. Once the two new rockets have cleared initial demonstration flights, Arianespace expects annual launch rates to include six to seven Ariane 5 liftoffs, three to four Soyuz and one to two Vega missions.
The Soyuz debut has been delayed repeatedly, most recently by problems in the construction and delivery of a Russian-built mobile gantry. The gantry has arrived at the Guiana Space Center and Le Gall said an inaugural Soyuz flight — to launch the Hylas 1 commercial Ka-band broadband satellite — is scheduled well before the end of the year. But it will not be possible to conduct a second launch, of the first of two French government Pleiades optical Earth observation satellites, before 2011, Le Gall said in an April 26 interview.
The delay means that European Space Agency () governments — led by France, which is paying the biggest share of the cost — will be asked to finance about 50 million euros in additional Soyuz program charges, according to Antonio Fabrizi, ESA’s director of launchers.
In an April 28 interview, Fabrizi said the additional Soyuz costs are expected to be approved in May by ESA’s Industrial Policy Committee, which is the agency’s check-writing body. ESA governments in early 2009 had already approved 60 million euros in new payments to account for Soyuz delays.
The Soyuz delays prompted Arianespace to reactivate its Starsem affiliate, a French-Russian joint venture that markets Soyuz launches from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Arianespace has planned four launches, each carrying six satellites, of the second generation ofmobile-telephone satellites. The first of these launches is scheduled for September, with the other three set for 2011, all from Baikonur, according to Arianespace.
Fabrizi agreed with Le Gall that development of the Vega rocket, while now proceeding without major hiccups, will not be completed in time for a launch this year.
“By the end of May we should be able to start combined operations at the launch site to prepare for Vega,” Fabrizi said. “We would not do that unless we were confident that we are in the final stretch, because it will mean sending about 100 people to [the Guiana Space Center] for these activities. But it does look likely that the first launch will slip into early 2011.”
Arianespace and ESA are continuing to negotiate the timing and extent of the end of ESA’s payments, amounting to around 40 million euros per year, to maintain Ariane 5 production equipment located at facilities owned by the Ariane 5 contractors. These so-called MCO costs — a French acronym for Maintenance of Operational Conditions — are scheduled to become industry’s full responsibility starting with the 11th flight of the 4 billion-euro order for 35 Ariane 5 rockets that Arianespace placed with its contractors in 2009.
At the current rate of Ariane 5 launches, the 11th flight from this batch of vehicles is scheduled to occur in 2013.
“Our ministers told us in 2008 that industry should take over these costs,” Fabrizi said. “We are discussing with Arianespace to see if this is possible.”