Arianespace Gets Ready For Astra Launch

By | March 27, 2002 | Feature

Arianespace is getting set to launch the Astra 3A satellite on March 28. While hoping for another successful launch, the recent reliability problems and delays in terms of the delivery of satellites is one of the major issues affecting the industry as a whole. The launch services provider, is in essence the last link in the chain can often be at the mercy of satellite manufacturers who are having problems with their systems.

Clayton Mowry, president of Arianespace’s U.S. operation, told Interspace, “Increased competition in the satellite manufacturing business has led to significant pressure to reduce costs and speed production times. The faster you could build a satellite, the better it was. I think right now, you are going to see reduced pressure on that side and a returned focus on ensuring the highest quality, and more of a drive towards quality and ensuring this thing operates the way it is supposed to.”

Mowry believes it is wrong to solely blame the manufacturers for these delays. He said: “Some people in the industry point fingers at the satellite manufacturers. It is not always the satellite manufacturers who are at fault. Since every satellite is basically custom-built, delays are often intertwined with issues such as reliability and testing and what the customers are requiring.”

So, how is Arianespace trying to help the manufacturers? It uses an approach called dual manifesting. If there is a delay in the original launch schedule, the launch company can prepare for optional pairing of satellites. It expects that the Ariane 5 will have the capability to launch every month next year, thus equalling 24 satellites in dual manifest.

“What we try to do to minimise [delays] is stay close to the manufacturers, have a good solid relationship on an engineering level, so we have a good idea when the satellites are going to be delivered. We can manage our manifest accordingly. We are the only people that do a manifest in the business,” notes Mowry.

He continues: “We are the only launch services provider that has the flexibility to do dual manifesting, allowing us to mix and match payloads to optimise schedules. We’ve done over 60 dual manifests already, and with the introduction of the 10-ton Ariane 5 later this summer, we’ll be able to pair satellites of all sizes.”

Fewer satellites will be launched over the coming months, so launch services providers such as Arianespace will be under more pressure to make sure it signs its share of contracts. Mowry concedes: “A few years ago, we were looking at 30-35 satellite deliveries a year, where as now we are looking at the 20-25 range in the near term, and most likely less than 20 this year. Combined with the entry of two new vehicles on the market this year, it makes the launch business more competitive. We have a surplus of launch vehicles out there and fewer satellites than we were expecting two to three years ago. So, that means there is downward pressure on pricing and the pressure to win contracts has increased.”

Every contract award is now vital for launch services providers. In its most recent contract win, Arianespace signed a deal in February with SatMex to launch the SatMex 6 satellite.

Arianespace’s main competitors in this area are International Launch Services (ILS) and Boeing Launch Services (BLS). Mowry believes one of Arianespace’s main competitive advantages is that both ILS and Boeing have several vehicles in the same weight class, thus “competing” against each other. He adds: “Those two players [BLS and ILS] market several vehicles, some of which are in the exact same weight class [four to five tonnes]. So, between our two largest competitors, they have four vehicles in that same weight class where as we are going to have one, the Ariane 5.”

Despite the fact that satellite manufacturers will take more time over satellite launches and there will be fewer satellites being launched, Mowry still believes the launch services market is unlikely to see consolidation. He says: “We are not going away, so I think if you are going to see anyone exit the industry or you are going to see any attrition, it won’t be on our side, it will be our two competitors. I think the market can sustain three players, but not this many vehicles in the same weight class.”

–Mark Holmes

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