Eutelsat becomes first Ariane 6 commercial customer with five-satellite launch contract

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PARIS — Fleet operator Eutelsat of Paris signed a contract with Arianespace to launch five satellites on the future Ariane 6 rocket by 2027.

The Sept. 10 contract is Arianespace’s first with a commercial satellite operator for Ariane 6, and brings to eight the number of Ariane 6 missions on the company’s manifest, assuming none of the Eutelsat satellites are dual-manifested on the same rocket.

Eutelsat executives have suggested for years that the company was willing to be first in line to embrace Ariane 6, including most recently in June 2017 when the company signed a three-launch agreement for Ariane 5 missions.

Eutelsat spokesperson Marie-Sophie Ecuer told SpaceNews by email that the multi-launch agreement came with “attractive terms” that are “fully aligned with our objective to significantly reduce launch cost,” but declined to say if the company received a discount. To woo customers, SpaceX offered discounts of around $10 million to launch on the first Falcon 9 rockets to use previously flown first-stage boosters.

Ariane 64 ESA
Artist’s rendition of Ariane 6 with four strap-on boosters. Credit: ESA

Eutelsat has demonstrated a willingness to use new launchers, having signed contracts for Blue Origin’s New Glenn and International Launch Services’ Proton Medium, though the latter vehicle has since been placed on indefinite hold. New rockets often have a higher risk of failure in their early days as unproven technology becomes understood.

Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said Sept. 10 at a press conference on the sidelines of Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week conference here that the five new Eutelsat missions will likely launch on the larger version of the rocket, the Ariane 64, though it will be up to Eutelsat to decide.

The Ariane 64, like the current Ariane 5, is optimised to launch two satellites at a time, meaning each will need a co-passenger. Israël said Eutelsat could use the Ariane 62, which has two strap-on boosters instead of four, but that the lighter version is optimized for low-Earth orbit missions. Eutelsat could also revert missions to Ariane 5 before that rocket retires in 2023 if it wants, he said.

Ariane 6 is on schedule for a first launch in 2020, and is intended to cost customers 40 percent less than launching on an Ariane 5.

Arianespace has yet to place a production contract with ArianeGroup, its parent company and the manufacturer of Ariane 6, for the next-generation rocket. The company was waiting for a bulk launch order from European government customers   that would guarantee a baseline demand of five Ariane 6 missions per year but no such commitment has materialized.

Israël said the absence of a European block order from governments now has Arianespace “to a certain extent walking in advance of the formalization of the [production] contract.”

“We will be ready for mid-2020,” he said. “It is now up to Arianespace, ArianeGroup and its institutional partners to formalize the first industrial contract of this hardware.”

European government bodies have assigned disparate launch contracts for Ariane 6, including two from the European Commission for Galileo satellites, and one today from France for the Composante Spatiale Optique military imaging satellite.

Israël said the European Space Agency has a science satellite that it is also prepared to launch on an Ariane 6.