The March 9 launch of an Ariane 5 rocket carrying the Eutelsat-65 West A commercial telecommunications satellite. Credit: Arianespace

The Air Force is studying the option of launching some military satellites on Europe’s Ariane 5.

Claire Leon, U.S. Air Force launch enterprise director. Credit: USAF
Claire Leon, U.S. Air Force launch enterprise director. Credit: USAF

Speaking at a conference this week, the Air Force’s launch enterprise director, Claire Leon, said the Pentagon has started a study to determine the feasibility of using the Ariane 5 for national security payloads.

That analysis is ongoing, but additional meetings between Arianespace and the Air Force are planned.

Use of the Ariane 5 could provide a stopgap as United Launch Alliance transitions from the Atlas 5 to the Vulcan and new providers enter the market, but would require significant changes in national space policy.

U.S. government payloads are required to launch on rockets built in the United States.  Exceptions are carved out for:

  • No-exhange-of-funds agreements involving international scientific programs
  • Launches of secondary technology demonstrator or scientific payloads for which no U.S. launch service is available
  • Hosted payload arrangements on spacecraft not owned by the U.S. government

NASA is using the no-exchange-of-funds exemption to launch the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018 aboard an Ariane 5 that the European Space Agency is paying for as part of its contribution to the $9 billion project.

Under the current National Space Transportation Policy, last updated in 2013, the Air Force would need a White House waiver to buy an Ariane 5 launch for a U.S. military satellite. [Wall Street Journal]

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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...