BREMEN, Germany — European governments and launch companies hailed an agreement reached last week on the future of the continent’s launch industry despite questions about how one aspect of that agreement, a competition, will work.
Throughout the first day of the Space Tech Expo Europe conference here Nov. 14, officials praised the agreement, announced at the European Space Summit in Seville, Spain, Nov. 6, as a major change or “paradigm shift” in how Europe develops and acquires launch services.
The agreement provided near-term financial support for the Ariane 6 and Vega C rockets, including up to 340 million euros ($369 million) a year for Ariane 6 to allow production of a set of 27 vehicles, as well as commitments to purchase at least four Ariane 6 and three Vega C launches a year for institutional missions.
In the longer term, though, the European Space Agency intends to move to a services model, competing launches among multiple private companies rather than assigning them solely to Ariane 6 and Vega C. ESA, though, has offered few details about how that competition will work.
“Competition will be the method of choice in the launcher sector in the future,” said Walther Pelzer, director-general of the German Space Agency at DLR, in a keynote at the conference. That will protect, he said, from the ongoing “launcher crisis” in Europe caused in part by delays in the Ariane 6. “Monopolies imply a lot of risks.”
Germany was a major advocate of the launch competition concept, he said, presenting it at a meeting of the ESA Council in June, and getting “a lot of support” there.
“We collectively agreed that the new model, resting on competition and service procurement, will frame Europe’s launcher and, most likely, low orbit landscape in the future,” said Philippe Baptiste, chief executive of the French space agency CNES. “It’s the only option for Europe to regain its position as a global space power.”
However, exactly how the competition, also called a “launcher challenge,” will play out is not clear. Géraldine Naja, ESA’s director of commercialization, industry and procurement, said in a presentation that a plan for the challenge will be proposed at the next ESA ministerial meeting in 2025.
She said those plans are supported by the development of small launch vehicles by several European companies slated to being launching within the next few years. “This is becoming real,” she said, noting the number of launch companies exhibiting at the conference. “We have a very impressive way forward with many small launchers.”
One of those companies is PLD Space, which successfully launched its Miura 1 suborbital rocket Oct. 6 and is working on the Miura 5 small launch vehicle. “The Space Summit was an inflection point for the space industry in Europe,” said Ezequiel Sánchez, executive president of PLD Space. “Our perception is that it is a clear opportunity for more launchers.”
It’s less clear, though, how it will translate to larger launch vehicles not yet under development. “We can play with that, at least for small launchers,” Baptiste said of competition, citing the lower cost to develop them. “If we are talking about heavy launchers, I think it will be much more difficult.”
Another factor, he said, is the low demand for European institutional launches of larger vehicles. “In the current market of today, having several heavy launchers competing for four launches every year makes no sense.” That could change, he said, if new programs like the IRIS² broadband constellation drive additional demand.
Marco Fuchs, chief executive of OHB, raised a similar concern. “If you only have four institutional missions, you don’t need 10 large rockets in Europe. That’s pretty obvious,” he said.
However, companies competing for government launches will also look for commercial business in Europe and elsewhere. “We will not have an institutional market in Europe that sustains many, many rocket companies,” he said. Competition, he said, may create a “more competitive” launch industry in Europe, like competition in the satellite industry.
“Europe needs to get sorted on the way we organize this competition,” said Pierre Godart, chief executive of ArianeGroup Germany. That includes work by ESA to define the competition and industry to prepare how to respond. “We have a little bit of time, but not too much.”
He recommended that ESA not copy the launch competition model used in the United States. “It’s never successful when we make a one-to-one copy” of American approaches, he said. “We will have to find our European way forward, which is different from what we had in the past.” He didn’t elaborate on the changes he would like to see in that approach.
He suggested in a panel presentation that it was unlikely there would be European competition for the Ariane 6 this decade, citing the support that vehicle received at the summit. “We are not in a hurry because we know up to 2030 the way it will be handled, but we need to get prepared.”
“I think Seville has been a great success,” said Sabine von der Recke, a member of the board of OHB, by both providing near-term support for the Ariane 6 and laying the groundwork for a future competition.
“Seville was not only a decision on launchers. It will change also the rest of space, because it’s the hardest decision and the most political,” she said. “I think it will lead to a very good future for space.”