— The successful March 17 launch of the European Space Agency (ESA) GOCE Earth observation satellite aboard a Russian Rockot vehicle was a life-saving event for Eurockot Launch Services GmbH, the German-Russian company that sells commercial launches on the converted ICBM.

The launch followed the October 2005 failure of the last Eurockot mission for ESA, when a Rockot vehicle sent the Cryosat satellite into the ocean in the
Arctic Circle
even as launch teams continued to broadcast a launch success to ESA officials.

Since then, a series of delays relating to Rockot’s Breeze upper stage and other factors had delayed the GOCE satellite so long that mission teams feared they would be forced to change the satellite’s orbit, a decision that would have reduced the scientific harvest. In addition, Russian inflation during the same period forced Bremen, Germany-based Eurockot to increase its prices abruptly.

A mild solar cycle has permitted GOCE to remain in its intended orbit, and Eurockot hopes other events out of its control will help it solidify its relations with ESA. GOCE is designed to operate in a very low orbit where the residual atmosphere creates drag on the satellite; a more intense solar cycle would have caused more expansion of the atmosphere, increasing the drag on the satellite and thus forcing ESA to place it into a higher orbit.

“We have lost credibility in the last three years with the failure and with the delays and the high inflation rate that has forced us to about double our prices,” Matthias Oehn, Eurockot’s chief executive, said in a March 17 interview here at ESA’sEsrin Earth observation center. “What we need most of all now is to regain ESA’s confidence.”

is 51 percent owned by Astrium, the prime contractor for Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket, and 49 percent by Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center of Moscow, which converts Rockot, based on the SS-19 ballistic missile, into a space-launch vehicle and manufactures the Breeze upper stage.

is also prime contractor for
‘s heavy-lift Proton rocket, which uses some of the same upper-stage engines as Rockot, as does
‘s Soyuz rocket.

Proton and Soyuz both launch much more frequently than Rockot, and both have the strong backing from the Russian government. The result has been that Rockot occasionally finds itself at the bottom of the priority list in the Russian rocket component supply chain.

With Earth observation now taking an increasingly important role at ESA, the agency is becoming a large customer for launch vehicles tailored to place satellites weighing less than
3,000 kilograms
into polar low Earth orbit.

Volker Liebig, ESA’s director of Earth observation, said ESA has 24 Earth observation satellites it will be launching in the next 10 years, including spacecraft financed by the Eumetsat meteorological organization of

“As we have seen, one of the biggest challenges of our program has been to find suitable launch vehicles,” Liebig said here March 16. “This remains a real concern for us.”

Some of these satellites, including the Meteosat Third Generation satellites, are beyond Rockot’s weight and orbit range. But many others are around the 1,500-kilogram, 700-kilometer polar Earth orbit specifications that are Rockot’s core business.

immediate challenge is to regain the confidence of ESA’s Earth observation directorate before ESA’s Vega rocket – a direct Rockot competitor – enters service in 2010.

is scheduled to launch ESA’s Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity, or SMOS, satellite late this year. Oehm said the company is hopeful that a glitch-free launch will persuade ESA to retain Rockot at least as a Vega backup in the coming years.

Another possible Eurockot advantage is that it may be able to reduce its prices given the slide in the value of the Russian ruble against the euro and the U.S. dollar in recent months. Khrunichev recently has cut Proton prices for launching commercial telecommunications satellites because of the ruble’s decline.

said he could not speculate on whether a similar price cut would be possible for Rockot launches.