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Arianespace, Mitsubishi Sign Commercial Launch Agreement

By | April 30, 2007

      Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. (MHI) and Arianespace have agreed to combine their commercial satellite launch services, the companies announced on April 24. The agreement will provide customers with a choice of Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket or MHI’s H-2A vehicle.

      Making the announcement during a visit to Tokyo, Arianespace chairman and CEO Jean-Yves Le Gall remarked about the importance of the company’s relationship with Japan, which dates back to the establishment of an Arianespace office in Japan in 1986 and the launch of the first Japanese commercial satellite by Arianespace in 1989.

      To date, Arianespace has delivered 23 of Japan’s 32 commercial launch contracts, and remains the only service provider receiving Japanese orders for payloads to be lofted on a new-generation heavy launcher.

      In the next 12 months, Arianespace is booked to launch three payloads for Japanese satellite operators: BSAT-3A for B-Sat Corp., Horizons-2 for JSAT Corp., and Superbird-7 for Space Communications Corp.

      The new agreement builds off a July 2003 agreement among Arianespace, MHI and Boeing Launch Services Inc. to establish the Launch Services Alliance. The flagship launchers for the alliance are the Ariane 5, H-2A and Boeing’s Sea Launch platform. The agreement provides backup vehicles for each partner’s respective launches, affording customers to transition seamlessly between any of the three private spaceflight platforms, providing maximum flexibility to ensure delivery to orbit while nevertheless allowing the members to each retain their autonomous marketing efforts.

      "We’ve done very well in the Japanese market in the past," Clay Mowry, president of Arianespace Inc. in the United States, said. "This is a way to enhance the service offering that we have there, and maintain a strong partnership."

      Mowry added that "from a service offering position, it makes perfect sense for us. … It’s a nice complement to the Ariane 5, and hopefully it will add to the breadth of our offerings in Japan and elsewhere."

      While under the traditional back-up plan services offered by Launch Services Alliance, each company marketed and bid its services separately, Mowry said. "This gives us more ability to market them on the front end" and broaden their client capabilities.

      Mowry declined to speculate on how much business the partnership will produce for the H-2A. "At this point, it’s impossible to predict how many more missions it will generate."

      Analyst Marco Caceres of Teal Group shared that uncertainty.

      "What would the advantage be here?" "I’d look at it more from a standpoint of overall cooperation between France and Japan," Caceres said. "I don’t know what the advantage to Arianespace would be. They have a vehicle that can launch two fairly large satellites at a time. I don’t know what they’d gain, because the H-2A is essentially noncompetitive."

      Caceres recalled that "the most they launch the H-2A in any year is three or four times, and they haven’t launched four in years. They’ve had some trouble with it."

      He explained "the last time they had a failure was 2003, and before that in 1999. Since 2003, they have launched four or five missions and performed well. They had three total launches in ’06, and one in ’05. That was a relatively new vehicle. They had consecutive failures with their H-2 to encourage them to move to the H-2A. It’s not the most reliable in the world."

      He continued, "On the surface, I don’t know what Arianespace gets out of this. It helps the Japanese get their vehicle to market," and added "anything that Arianespace throws their way would be a plus, but to me, H-2A has all it can handle right now."

      Conversely, Caceres considered, "maybe Arianespace will get more Japanese contracts," and speculated that "maybe they’re just finding a way to penetrate the commercial market for the future. The Japanese would probably launch more satellites if they were able to launch more often than two or three times a year. This is more about Arianespace getting more launches of Japanese satellites.

      "I’m sure the Japanese government doesn’t like the idea of launching their satellites on anything that’s not their vehicle. With a partnership, they gain some cover. Both governments win. This is not a huge advantage to H-2A: The Europeans are not going to give away contracts, and I don’t know that the Japanese could do more even if they were going to. For Arianespace to say ‘we can’t get you on ours, but we can get you on an H-2A,’ it’s unlikely anyone’s going to take them up on it. The only reason I can see is to get a few Japanese contracts."

      Caceres also thought that, looking forward, a joint venture for new vehicles would potentially ease the cost burden. "If they’re looking to the future and the follow-on vehicle to Ariane 5 or H-2A would be developed jointly, it will be very expensive. I don’t know that anyone wants to develop a rocket project by themselves. So you could speculate that this is about launch capability for the Japanese, and contracts for Arianespace."

      Mowry meanwhile insisted that "this is just an attempt by MHI and Arianespace to utilize capabilities of the H-2A," and added that "we’re trying to reinforce our partnership with them [and] better utilize the H-2A to better serve our customers."

      He explained that while "in its current configuration [the H-2A] doesn’t have the lift capability [of an Ariane 5], they’re working on new configurations. There are plenty of 202 classes, and 204 up to 4.3 tons that can fly on either system. There’s plenty of other spacecraft that could work, and this combination could be positive."

      Either way, Mowry said, the Launch Services Alliance will continue with its status quo. He said that the H-2A has yet to be used as an option there. "With H-2A, we haven’t heretofore switched [to it]. Most of the work we’ve done in the past, the actual utilization of it has been with Sea Launch and Ariane 5. They are still our alliance partner, so the capability is still there."

      Spokeswoman Paula Korn of Sea Launch confirmed that the Launch Services Alliance ought remain unaffected, and said her company is unconcerned about the new partnership, "We think it’s a marketing arrangement. It’s probably like we were doing a few years ago with Boeing Launch Services, [though] now we just market Sea Launch. It’s an arrangement they’ve made that doesn’t affect us at all. Maybe it’s economies of scale."

      The Arianespace-MHI offerings will deal in payloads between 2.5 and 4 tons, whereas Sea Launch payloads run between 4.5 and 6 tons.

      Korn added that Sea Launch ended its cooperative offering for Boeing’s Delta rocket when demand dried up. "It was good in its times," she said. "It worked out for a time, and then we determined we’d rather have our marketing guys just focusing on Sea Launch."

      – J.J. McCoy