PARIS — In the annual competition for non-government commercial launch contracts, International Launch Services (ILS) bested the competition with eight orders in 2004, one more than Europe’s Arianespace, which had seven new orders for the year. Sea Launch LLC took the other competitively bid contract, according to the companies and industry officials.
The 16 new commercial orders made 2004 an unremarkable year compared to the industry’s heyday in the 1990s. While ILS and Arianespace both have significant business selling launch services to their respective government customers, the commercial market for launches of geostationary communication satellites is the primary one where they compete directly head-to-head. For its part, Sea Launch, which has no government customers, competes solely in that same geostationary commercial market.
Other players in the international commercial market, though not in 2004, are China Great Wall Industries Corp., which markets the Long March series of rockets and Antrix the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation.
Industry officials say 2005 is unlikely to be much better than 2004. But the prices paid by customers confirmed that commercial-launch prices have ended the slide that began in the late 1990s.
The chief executives of the two biggest competitors, Mark Albrecht of ILS and Jean-Yves Le Gall of Arianespace, agreed that prices have firmed and are likely to increase in 2005.
Another development in 2004 is that some large satellite operators began booking launches well ahead of time — even before they know what satellite they want to launch — because they are worried about future launcher availability despite the fact that manufacturing capacity continues to outstrip demand.
Industry officials say part of the reason for this is that today’s commercial-launch market is characterized by a fragility that belies its apparent capacity glut.
Arianespace, which has set its long-term business plans on the ability to launch five or six heavy-lift Ariane 5 vehicles each year — most carrying two large satellites each — conducted just three Ariane 5 launches in 2004.
The Evry, France-based company’s performance has been shackled by a December 2002 launch accident. Ariane’s business plan is based on its ability to launch two large commercial communications satellites aboard an upgraded version of its Ariane 5 launcher. The qualification flight of that new redesigned version of the Ariane 5 rocket, called the ECA, is scheduled to take place in February.
Sea Launch LLC of Long Beach, Calif., had forecast a six-launch year in 2004 but was limited to three launches. Satellites were late in arriving, and a defective performance of the vehicle’s Block DM upper stage during a June launch delayed further operations.
A planned December Sea Launch mission to orbit the Intelsat IA-8 was canceled after Intelsat’s orbiting IA-7 satellite, whose design is similar to that of IA-8, temporarily failed. Washington-based Intelsat Ltd. has suspended the launch until satellite manufacturer Space Systems/Loral completes an examination of the IA-7 anomaly.
“There has been a launcher shortage for a year or so and will be again in 2005,” Albrecht said in an interview. “Being in a shortage situation, we have seen good news in terms of prices. The rock-bottom deals you used to see have disappeared.”
Gone are the days when a satellite operator could procure the launch of a 3,500-kilogram telecommunications satellite for $48 million, industry officials said.
“Prices have firmed and we expect that to continue to be the case in 2005,” Le Gall said during a Jan. 4 press briefing. Arianespace expects to report a marginal profit on sales of 700 million euros ($920 million) for 2004 when it closes its books in June, Le Gall said. That compares to a wafer-thin profit on 559 million euros in sales for 2003.
Arianespace shareholders agreed to recapitalize the company with a cash infusion of 60 million euros in December — less than what Arianespace was counting on but enough to eliminate the company’s debt and leave it with about 395,000 euros in share capital. The company also has some 360 million euros in the bank as part of advance payments on launches. Its backlog is 40 satellites, Le Gall said.
ILS, which is majority-owned by Lockheed Martin Corp., does not disclose sales figures, but Albrecht said the business was profitable in 2004.
The commercial posture of ILS and Arianespace grew more similar in 2004, the first year in which Arianespace began selling commercial launches of Russia’s Soyuz rocket from Europe’s equatorial Guiana Space Center in French Guiana. The first launch is scheduled for 2007.
ILS for more than a decade has depended on the Russian Proton vehicle, built by Moscow’s Khrunichev State Space Center, to complement its Lockheed Martin Atlas series of rockets. The new Atlas 5 also uses Russian-built first-stage engines.
Similarly, Sea Launch relies on the Zenit rocket, which is built in Ukraine and launched from a sea-going platform that can conduct launches from the equator to maximize its payload capacity.
Dealing with ruble-based suppliers gives Western launch services companies a pricing flexibility they would not have otherwise.
“With the addition of Soyuz, we have now matched what our American competitors have done in partnerships with Russian launchers,” Le Gall said.
Le Gall and Albrecht agreed that between 15 and 20 commercial launch contracts likely would be signed in 2005.