Falcon 9 first stage in its hangar following its Dec. 22 launch and return to Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: SpaceX

BRUSSELS, Belgium – Satellite fleet operator Eutelsat has selected SpaceX to launch the Eutelsat Quantum or another Eutelsat telecommunications satellite, a contract that gives SpaceX business with all of the world’s top five commercial fleet owners, industry officials said.

Paris-based Eutelsat declined to comment on whether it had sealed an order with SpaceX, as did Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX. But industry officials said that Eutelsat booked a firm order in the latter half of 2015.

SpaceX received two satellite-launch orders from Canada’s Telesat in 2015. The Eutelsat contract means SpaceX has in its backlog — for the Falcon 9 Full Thrust or the future Falcon Heavy version — orders from SES of Luxembourg; Intelsat of Luxembourg and McLean, Virginia; Eutelsat; Telesat and Inmarsat of London.

While satellite owners usually insist that their satellites be compatible with all the major commercial rockets — the Ariane 5, Falcon 9 and Russia’s Proton — they have preferences that are often based on their comfort with launch providers. Conducting a successful launch is the best way to build comfort and make the next launch contract that much easier to win.

The bigger its fleet, the more often an operator must launch just to maintain its current business. SES and Intelsat, for example, together operate around 100 satellites, meaning they must book a combined six satellites per year in replacement capacity alone. Growth capacity would add to that number.

Despite the many one-satellite national satellite owners being created mainly in emerging-market nations, a launch service provider, like the neighborhood restaurant, cannot survive without repeat business.

Eutelsat launched its 115 West B satellite aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket in March 2015. But the launch had been booked by Satmex of Mexico before Eutelsat’s purchase of Satmex. Eutelsat’s 117 West B is scheduled for a SpaceX launch in 2016, a contract that also came with the Satmex acquisition.

Eutelsat officials said they were impressed with the accuracy of the Falcon 9, which enabled their all-electric 115 West B to reach its operating position several weeks ahead of schedule, enabling an early start to service and revenue.

More than any of its rivals, Eutelsat has wrapped itself in the European flag. Almost all its satellites are from European manufacturers, and it has been one of Arianespace’s best customers.

SpaceX’s lower-cost commercial offering has been the bête noire of Europe’s launch sector, and of some European politicians, for several years, making any choice of the California company by a European operator a source of controversy.

In 2015, when Airbus Defence and Space tentatively selected SpaceX to launch the Airbus-owned EDRS-C data-relay satellite — whose mission received financial support from the European Space Agency and European Commission – French politicians lined up to protest the deal.

Airbus ultimately switched to Arianespace after what industry officials said was supplemental European government financing so that the Ariane 5 launch cost Airbus not much more than a SpaceX launch.

One European industry official said the same thing may happen again, especially if Eutelsat decides that it is the Eutelsat Quantum flexible-payload satellite that will launch on SpaceX. Quantum is a European Space Agency-financed effort, with the British government the principal backer.

Eutelsat said Jan. 12 that it had made no decision on what rocket will launch Quantum.

Eutelsat is free to select its own launcher, even in a public-private partnership such as Eutelsat Quantum — just as was Airbus for EDRS-C. But the political fallout may be more than the company would want to bear, especially without a British government signal that it was comfortable with the choice.

The kind of pressure that even private-sector operators feel when the go outside Europe for procurement was in clear evidence here Jan. 12-13 during the 8th Conference on European Space Policy, held at the European Commission.

Several European government officials and parliament members called for stricter rules binding all European governments to select European launchers.

But Europe’s private sector and some of its governments continue to go outside Europe for satellites and launches.

The German government used Russian rockets for its first-generation radar reconnaissance system, and has purchased two launches from SpaceX for the three-satellite SARah second-generation constellation. The program’s prime contractor, OHB SE of Bremen, Germany, has said only by using an old Airbus launch option with SpaceX was it able to meet the contract specifications and stay within the German government’s SARah budget.

Hispasat of Spain is the most recent European operator to select SpaceX, with an order placed in 2015. A second Hispasat order went to International Launch Services of Reston, Virginia, for Russia’s Proton rocket.

Hispasat Chief Technical Officer Antonio Abad told the conference that Hispasat had selected Ariane for eight of its 11 satellites so far, with the remaining three going to SpaceX, Proton and the U.S. Atlas 5.

“Diversification is important for us,” Abad said. “We are very good friends of [Arianespace], but we need to maintain alternative suppliers. We need to have competition to make sure the launchers are competitive, and to maintain schedule assurance. We need several launcher providers.”

Abad said that a company like Hispasat must  “maintain neutrality among our suppliers. We want to be able to select the satellite we want, and to launch it on the launcher we want. Don’t forget that.”

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.