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Arianespace loses key launch order

July 1, 2024

July 9th is the scheduled launch date for the much-delayed test flight European Space Agency’s (ESA) Ariane 6 rocket. However, last week saw Europe’s important weather organisation cancel its launch contract on an Ariane 6 flight. Worse, perhaps, the cancellation was made in favour of Arianespace’s arch-rival SpaceX.

Eumetsat, in a June 28th statement, said its Meteosat Third Generation-Sounder 1 (MTG-S1) geostationary weather satellite will now launch on a Falcon 9 in 2025. The spacecraft had originally been expected to launch on an Ariane 6 on the rocket’s third launch around March 2025. The Eumetsat/Arianespace contract was signed some four years ago.

“This decision was driven by exceptional circumstances,” Phil Evans, DG-of Eumetsat, said in his statement, adding: “It does not compromise our standard policy of supporting European partners, and we look forward to a successful SpaceX launch for this masterpiece of European technology.”

Behind the scenes it would appear that Eumetsat has swapped a perhaps uncertain launch date on an Ariane 6 for a definite date on a Falcon 9.

Unsaid, but very clear, is that the decision is very much a vote of no confidence in Arianespace and in particular either uncertainties over a promised launch date and the cost of the planned mission.

French newspaper Le Monde stated that the cancellation had been a totally unexpected surprise at ESA and its launch contracting colleagues at ArianeGroup and the French space agency (CNES). Philippe Baptiste, head of CNES, called the decision “quite a brutal change” given the unfortunate timing and “a very disappointing day for European space efforts.”.

Josef Aschbacher, DG at ESA, also called Eumetsat’s decision “surprising” in a June 29th comment. “It’s difficult to understand, especially as Ariane-6 is well on track for its 9 July inaugural flight, with all proceeding nominally.” He added that the decision was “surprising”.

The news that the debut launch is proceeding on plan is positive, but this is test flight only with a – mostly – dummy cargo. The first actual commercial flight is not scheduled until this coming winter. Meanwhile, SpaceX is planning at least 144 launches this year of its hugely successful Falcon 9 vehicles.

Arianespace is planning to ramp up next year to about six missions in total, and then the longer-term strategy is for 9-10 launches annually.

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