Vexed by Schedule Delays, Arianespace Heading Toward Unprofitable 2010

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PARIS — Europe’s Arianespace commercial launch consortium may report a net loss again this year following schedule delays that have kept it to just three launch campaigns since January, Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said Sept. 21.

In an interview, Le Gall said the Evry, France-based consortium has secured approval of its shareholders for a capital increase of 50 million euros ($65 million) and perhaps more, with the funds to be moved to Arianespace’s books by the end of the year.

The company also is continuing to make small improvements to its Ariane 5 ECA rocket by moving to lighter-weight materials and making other changes that are expected to result in an increase in the rocket’s payload-carrying power.

Le Gall said the current series of modifications will allow Ariane 5 to carry two telecommunications satellites weighing a combined 9,100 kilograms into geostationary orbit, compared with around 8,700 kilograms currently. Ariane 5 rockets incorporating these modifications will begin flying in early 2011, he said.

The next series of equally minor modifications will raise performance to 9,400 kilograms and is expected to be in place for launches starting in late 2012 or 2013, Le Gall said.

Despite having performed a record seven launches of the Ariane 5 vehicle in 2009, Arianespace reported a loss of 71.2 million euros on sales of 1.03 billion euros.

Le Gall declined to speculate on the revenue total for 2010 beyond saying that current plans are to conduct three more Ariane 5 ECA launches, each carrying two commercial telecommunications satellites, by the end of the year. “We will likely be close to break-even this year depending on how the rest of the year goes, but I don’t want to speculate on a precise figure,” he said.

In addition, Arianespace is managing the launch of six second-generation Globalstar mobile communications satellites aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket, with the launch scheduled for mid-October from the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Three more Soyuz launches of Globalstar satellites are scheduled for 2011, also from Baikonur.

With funding from the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA) and a loan from the European Investment Bank, Arianespace plans to commercialize Russia’s Soyuz from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana starting in 2011.

The inaugural Soyuz flight has been delayed repeatedly for numerous reasons related to construction of a Soyuz-dedicated launch pad and, more recently, a debate over which satellite will be the inaugural passenger.

Le Gall said that if the maiden European Soyuz launch carries the first of two Pleiades high-resolution optical Earth observation satellites for the French government, the launch could occur by March. The inaugural flight will slip to around July, however, if it will carry two of the four validation satellites for Europe’s Galileo navigation and timing project.

The four In-Orbit Validation (IOV) satellites for Galileo have suffered their own delays. This year, European Commission program managers ordered that Chinese search-and-rescue terminals on the satellites be removed and replaced by dummy payloads that would have the same weight and power requirements to permit a valid test of the satellite system.

“The most recent information I have is that the first two IOV spacecraft will be ready around July,” Le Gall said, adding that he remains hopeful that the French government will approve putting a Pleiades spacecraft on the first Soyuz, permitting an earlier launch.

Managers of the Pleiades and the Galileo IOV satellites had both assumed until this summer that the Hylas 1 Ka-band consumer broadband satellite would be the first Soyuz customer. Hylas 1 has been shifted to an Ariane 5 flight scheduled for late November.

“It’s true that the launch pad is new, but once the rocket lifts off, there is nothing really new about the Soyuz system we are using [in French Guiana] compared to the one used in Baikonur,” Le Gall said.