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Arianespace has passenger problems

February 4, 2014

Arianespace is in the business of launching satellites into space, and is justifiably proud of its giant Ariane-5 rocket system which can simultaneously carry two satellites to orbit.

But carrying two cargoes also presents problems, especially if one of those client passengers isn’t ready on time. And in the past this has created significant delays for Arianespace as it struggled to ‘match’ the demands of various clients into one rocket launch.

Consequently, Arianspace wisely partnered with Russia’s Soyuz rocket manufacturer for a European version of the launcher and which could carry a single medium-weight satellite to orbit. This, it was thought, would eliminate, or reduce, the market delays of getting satellites into orbit. IT would also boost Arianespace’s cash-flow, given that it can only charge for a launch when the satellite goes up!

Last year was, however, typical when launch delays for both the double-launch Ariane and the single launch Soyuz once again hit revenues. It means that this year’s launch schedule plans for 14 launches: seven or eight heavy-lift Ariane-5’s, four Soyuz launchers and a couple of small launches using the small Vega rocket.

However, the launch manifest is already falling apart. One of the problems is Europe’s governmental and scientific satellites. Europe’s Space Agency (ESA) wants to earmark the launch of their Galileo GPS satellites which will need 3 Soyuz rockets. There’s also a scientific mission planned for the Sentinel 1A radar spacecraft.

But the SES-backed O3b data and telecoms business has also reserved a Soyuz launcher for a much-needed (and late) quartet of small satellites, with means there is a demand for at least 5 Soyuz launchers this year, and only 4 rockets likely to be available.

Arianespace is not short of orders (its contracted backlog tops €4 billion) but O3b is not caring much for delays. Its CEO told a Toulouse conference last week that O3b’s satellites could be ready for launch “in two weeks” but has to wait until June. Moreover, it seems there are financial penalties in place should Arianespace slip on its promised dates. And unsaid but very much in everyone’s mind is the clout that SES has in terms of future launch contracts. SES has already made clear it likes Arianespace’s arch-rival rocket system, American-owned SpaceX.

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