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Triple success for SpaceX; Ariane loses contract

May 2, 2023

Elon Musk’s SpaceX scored three perfect launches over the past few days. However, it has emerged that Arianespace has lost an important contract to launch a satellite for Viasat. It has also emerged that Musk is budgeting to spend $2 billion on his Starship development programme.

SpaceX’s three recent launches (46 Starlinks on April 27th, two O3b mPOWER craft of April 28th and then the massive ViaSat-3 Americas satellite on April 30th) were each flawlessly executed, although the Viasat craft was subject to a number of weather-related delays. ViaSat 3 will take about 2-3 weeks to reach its designated orbital slot.

However, it emerged from California-based Viasat that its planned use of an Ariane-6 rocket for the launch of its third ViaSat craft (designed to serve the Asia-Pac regions) has been scrubbed.

Dave Ryan, Viasat’s president of space and commercial networks, in an interview with CBS News, explained his dilemma saying: “The Ariane, unfortunately, we had to change because they were having difficulties getting the Ariane-6 ready to go, and then secondly, when the war broke out, some of the launches that they were responsible for on Russian launchers had to be transferred over to their Ariane vehicles.”

“That pushed us later in line,” Ryan added. “So, it got so late that we had to put that third satellite out for bid, and we’re evaluating the proposals right now.”

Ryan’s comments suggest that there are only two possible alternates for the ViaSat-3 APAC satellite launch. They are another contract for SpaceX or possibly a United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket. The satellite will be ready for launch around the middle of 2024.

The ViaSat craft are heavy, with each weighing more than 6 tonnes. Viasat also wants each satellite to be orbited close to its target orbital position. SpaceX, on April 30th, used its Falcon Heavy configuration which comprised the main rocket and its booster plus two ‘strap-on’ additional boosters. The boosters were not recovered on this particular launch.

The Arianespace dilemma is serious. Its debut flight of the new Ariane-6 rocket is not likely until – at best – the end of this year. Once the Ariane-6 is approved for flight then the European Space Agency has a busy manifest of its own scientific missions as well as other government demands,

As for SpaceX’s giant Starship, which suffered a catastrophic test-flight explosion on April 20th, Musk is now saying that he anticipates spending around $2 billion on the Starship project. He added – in a Tweet chat – that SpaceX might not need to raise fresh funding over and above what it has in its bank account.

SpaceX is privately held and does not reveal financial information. “To the best of my knowledge, we do not need to raise incremental funding for SpaceX,” Musk said. The money will go on new iterations of the Starship rocket as well as building a new system at the launchpad that uses steel reinforcements and water. He added that if it took ten test rockets in order to take the project to orbit, then SpaceX would do it.

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