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Arianespace’s Challenging Future

By | February 24, 2003

      The successful launch of the last Ariane 4 rocket not only carried the Intelsat 907 satellite into orbit but also ushered in a new era of dependence by Arianespace on its less reliable Ariane 5.

      The Ariane 4’s final mission, Flight 159, marked the 74th successful launch in a row for the rocket that ended service after placing 182 satellites in orbit for 50-plus different satellite operators. In contrast, the Ariane 5 has incurred the teething pains that befall many new rockets.

      Arianespace still ranks as the world’s dominant launcher of commercial satellites and recently arranged a new contract with satellite broadband company WildBlue. The France- based launch service provider is talking about expanding its capabilities by offering Vega rocket launches as soon as 2006 for small payloads. It also may add Soyuz launches from French Guiana if funding can be obtained to pursue such a venture.

      Near-term, the future of Arianespace now rests solely with the Ariane 5.

      The challenge will be for the company to keep winning the bulk of commercial satellite launch orders in the face of competition from rockets such as the Boeing’s [BA] Delta IV and Lockheed Martin’s [LMT] Atlas V that successfully completed their first launches last year. Competition will also be coming from Sea Launch, a joint venture involving Boeing, Russia’s RSC Energia, Ukraine’s SDO Yuzhnoye/PO Yuzhmash and Norway’s Kvaerner Group. Sea Launch’s inaugural launch occurred on March 27, 1999, when it successfully carried a demonstration satellite.

      Washington-based Intelsat has been one of heaviest user’s of Arianespace services in the past with more than 60 percent of its still-operating satellites lifted by the European-based launcher since 1983. Arianespace and Intelsat began working together in 1983.

      The Intelsat 907 satellite boosted into orbit by the last Ariane 4 is expected to become operational in March.

      The Ariane 4’s 98 percent reliability rate, after 116 attempts, ranks as one of the highest in launch history. However, any talk that the Ariane 4 could be returned to service is unfounded, Arianespace officials said.

      “The successor for the Ariane 4 is the Ariane 5,” said Suzy Chambers, director of external affairs at Arianespace Inc., the European launcher’s U.S. unit.

      Chambers said the Ariane 5 employs advanced launch technology, a significantly enhanced lift capability and an opportunity to serve the company’s customers more cost- effectively in the future.

      Is Arianespace In a Corner?

      However, the basic version of the Ariane 5 has suffered one outright failure and two anomalies to notch a 77 percent success rate that leaves much room for improvement. The record is further smudged by a failure of Ariane 5’s 10-ton version in its first launch attempt last December.

      “Given the stellar record of the Ariane 4 and the not-so-stellar record of the Ariane 5, plus the ongoing weak market demand for launch services, it would appear that Arianespace has painted itself into the proverbial corner,” said Marshall H. Kaplan, director of space practices at Crystal City, Va.-based Strategic Insight. “Too much money and too many careers have been committed to the new big launcher. Arianespace must make Ariane 5 work, at any cost.”

      Roger Rusch, president of TelAstra Consultancy, of Palos Verdes, Calif., said that the Ariane 4 had a remarkable record for successful launches. He expects the Ariane 5 ultimately to equal that record after its shakeout period.

      “This superb record was achieved under strong, effective management that mobilized a talented team of engineers,” Rusch said. “Many customers understand the considerable engineering effort that Arianespace has devoted to reviewing launch performance.”

      Launch failures also occurred during the early stages of the Ariane 4 program, Rusch said.

      “I think the real issue for Ariane 5 is the match between launch capability and the size of satellites,” Rusch said. “Some people have predicted that typical satellites may become smaller in the future. If so, the Ariane 5 may be too large. I do not subscribe to that view, however, because future satellites will undoubtedly require larger antennas that will need large fairings.”

      Rusch noted that the U.S. government has funded the development of large expendable rockets – the Atlas V and the Delta IV. His view is that the availability of larger launch capabilities will result in the development of payloads that can “fully utilize” the resources.

      As a longer-term alternative to the Ariane 5, Arianespace is working with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian government to launch Soyuz rockets from French Guiana.

      The Soyuz would help to give Arianespace a family of rockets to offer customers. The Ariane 5 would provide medium to heavy lift capability of any combination of satellites, up to 10 metric tons. The Soyuz would serve the small-end geostationary satellites and those that need to be placed in polar orbit. The Vega, an ESA-funded and Italian-built rocket, would carry small scientific payloads or low-Earth-orbit satellites.

      –Paul Dykewicz

      (Suzy Chambers, Arianespace, 202/628-3936; Marshall Kaplan, Strategic Insight Ltd., 301.573.1498; Roger Rusch, TelAstra Consultancy, 310-373-1925)

      Ariane 4’s Legacy

      • First Launch: June 1988
      • Final Launch: February 2003
      • Total Missions: 116
      • Spacecraft Lifted: 182 satellites
      • Operators Served: 50-plus

      Source: Arianespace