Satellite Operators Tell ESA to Stop Bickering, Move Fast on Building Ariane 6

Artist's impression of Ariane 6. (Credit: ESA)
Artist’s impression of Ariane 6. (Credit: ESA)

Space News reports that European satellite fleet operators want ESA to move forward quickly with building an Ariane 5 successor:

A group including the world’s largest commercial satellite fleet operators has written the European Space Agency urging that it approve a new-generation Ariane 6 in time for a first launch in 2019 or face relegating the European rocket to commercial also-ran status.

The letter to ESA Director Jean-Jacques Dordain makes clear that these fleet operators have a ho-hum view of the Ariane 5 ME vehicle that ESA governments are weighing alongside a new-generation Ariane 6.

Given the advent of electric propulsion and the dramatic launch-cost reduction offered by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the operators say, the new Ariane 6 needs to be in service by 2019 or face the risk that Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium will be permanently sidelined.

The letter was signed by six members of the European Satellite Operators Association. Signatories included the chief executives of Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat, Inmarsat, Hispasat and HellasSat.

That’s a pretty weighty group. Maybe it will break the impasse over what to do next.

Ariane 5 ME is an interim step that would allow the Ariane 5 to carry heavier payloads. The launch vehicle carries one large communications satellite and a lighter one.

  • Pete Zaitcev

    The problem is, Arianne 6 is clearly a dead-end rocket which will not be competitive when reusability comes into play. And there’s no alternative on the table, thanks to clever maneuvering of the cost goalposts by the French. Any viable rocket will take more money to develop than the cobbled-together solid tristick. Everyone knows that, but are powerless to do anything about it.

  • windbourne

    Yes, but the European sat companies will accept using arriane as long as it is moving in right directions, just because it is European.
    About the only nation where the companies go for low bidder is American.
    Of course, when it is delta/atlas vs foreign launchers at 1/2 the price, they go foreign.
    Now spacex comes along at 1/4 of the price and these companies have more loyalty to Russian launchers. Go figure.

  • Michael J. Listner

    There are a lot of assumptions being made about re-usability, and it seems the satellite industry does not want to make the assumption that re-usability is going to be as cost-effective as advertised (the promises made by the Space Shuttle are a good example). The satellite industry wants options and not just reliance on one or two launchers. That they are pushing this suggests that they understand that it’s better to have options rather than put all your eggs in one basket.

  • HyperJ

    “the European sat companies will accept using arriane as long as it is moving in right directions, just because it is European”


  • Tonya

    Absolutely not, it’s somewhat difficult to even describe them as European firms. They all operate in a global market and are major global firms.

    For reference SES (they’re the ones making the most noise regarding Ariane 6), first launched with Space X last year. The payload was made by Orbital, and is now operating over Asia. SES is registered in Luxembourg, that’s globalization, and they’ll display all the loyalty of a cat towards Arianespace.

  • Aerospike

    I already wrote a comment about that article somewhere else here on parabolic arc.

    The satellite operators are clearly out of touch with reality: Ariane 6 (that hasn’t even got an agreed upon basic design yet) flying in 2019 is completely unrealistic imho.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Excellent summary of the situation.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I’m sure sat companies aren’t banking on reusability and in any case they would greatly prefer to have as many launch options as possible. That said, F9 is already much cheaper than its competition and even a modicum of success in SpaceX’s reusability efforts would only improve their prices. Not to mention the launch availability of having 4 pads, 3 ranges and FH. Europe, Russia and China need to be working towards reusable launch systems – that means no monolithic boosters engines and no solids.

  • Michael J. Listner

    That’s the mantra that is being chanted about re-usability, but the truth is a lot of them aren’t going to want re-usability until it’s proven. Most will opt for a straight F9 to ensure that their payload gets to orbit.

  • eclectic_student

    I disagree. Look at the article referenced above: “de Rosen said Eutelsat had agreed to let Arianespace launch Eutelsat’s 172B satellite…even though a SpaceX launch would have been less expensive.” Yes, some will purchase a launch or two on SpaceX and hedge their bets, and yes Arianespace has to be in the ballpark of the right price, but no, there’s no danger these satellite makers will completely ditch Arianespace. SES might give SpaceX a shot on a satellite for Asian markets, but they are also buying more launches on Ariane.

    Nor will Arianespace fail to be near the right price. They are not a private company, they can pick any price for their products and adjust the member nations’ contributions accordingly. (Yes, over time that may not be sustainable, but it can easily be sustained for a few years until better economies are achieved.) Anyone who doubts this has somehow missed the last two or three decades of competition between Airbus and Boeing.

    To be sure, SpaceX is competing hard and taking business Arianespace would previously have expected to get, but given their guaranteed government payloads and satisfied existing customers, well-developed technological base, and government backing, Arianespace can withstand some setbacks and compete hard. The fat lady isn’t even warming up yet. Reusability is not a factor until the price starts dropping, and it’s way too early to start counting on that.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I disagree. Cheaper launch costs will become ever more important. Satellites will get smaller and more numerous. Constellations of smaller cheaper sats will replace large expensive eggs in one basket strategies. Satellites will become more expendable as launchers become more reusable.

    “but the truth is a lot of them aren’t going to want re-usability until it’s proven”

    As evidenced by SpaceX’s manifest, sat companies will jump at the chance of lower launch costs. Those companies know how the comms market has changed, is changing and will change.

  • Tonya

    The simple reason why they are still launching on Ariane, and will be for many years is because the constraint is capacity, that’s where the 2019 date comes from. Arianespace is the worlds leading launch provider of commercial payloads, and will retain the crown for several years even if SpaceX gave their rockets away for free.

    There is absolutely zero chance that private companies will subsidise a Government launch vehicle. They have shareholders or private investors that they are accountable to, that simply doesn’t happen. More importantly, as I tried to emphasise, these are all massive global companies, they just happen to be registered and based in Europe.

    You’re reading far too much into what is simply the location of their head office. They all buy launch services and satellites (which is the much more expensive element) from multiple providers worldwide, and have done for many years. Their investors and end customers are also all global.

    Your correct point was the second one. What they are indirectly warning Arianespace of, is that they will need to be price competitive within a few years, by one or another.

    For reference, Arianespace is a private company. ESA is the joint Government agency of the member states, Arianespace operates independently. Unlike Airbus, being a private company doesn’t restrict it from receiving an operating subsidy from ESA member states, as launch services are not regulated by the WTO.

    Furthermore, almost no European Government satellites have been launched on Ariane, which has been a common criticism of the rocket. Instead they are almost all launched on Soyuz rockets, which Arianespace purchases from Russia, none of that money reaches the Ariane manufacturers.

  • su27k

    The letter is very short, I suggest everyone read it. It’s interesting, especially this part: “The overall consideration should equally account for the development lead-time as well as the modularity of the design. The future European launcher must be commercially available no later than 2019 while remaining competitive for the next three decades. During such an extended period, alternative launch service providers are likely to enter the market with enhanced value propositions, supported by new technologies and improved economics. To illustrate, the price per launch may well decrease significantly below the US$ 60M mark as presently proposed by SpaceX. In this context, it is necessary in our view that the design of the future European launcher includes enough modularity and is engineered in a future-proof manner. To that respect, Ariane 6 should remain open to performance adaptation, and if need be evolution towards new cost effective technologies including, for instance, reusability.”

    So satellite operators do see the possibility of reusability and more price reduction ahead, whether Ariane can accommodate this is another matter. The problem I see with Ariane is not the technology, I’m sure they can accomplish whatever they set their mind to. The problem is the huge cost of development, Ariane 5 ME is going to cost $1.6 billion, and Ariane 6 close to $4 billion, just comparing this to F9’s $400 million development cost, you’ll see why government backed launcher has no chance. Heck they spent more than $400 million on their launch pad for Soyuz, now they’re considering mothball the whole thing, it’s such a waste.

  • justchaz

    They did not quite say bickering did they? So that title is just sensationalist, but is that needed? I think space enthusiasts are already amped up to read about ventures like this. Moreover, at a fork that will plunge billions in either direction, while trying to look deep into the future, I think it is sane to take the time to debate and get it right. The satellite companies are understandably urging for more competition, only to serve their bottom line. ESA are the ones who have to make the right decision that keeps them relevant and not dropped by these satellite companies, once the next best thing arrives. I say they should butt out and use what is in the market at market prices and when ESA has a product, they can either buy or not, rather than try to throw their weight around as if their weight will be there to help the company if it finds itself in a bind.

  • Vladislaw

    A lot will depend on financing availability and insurance. If the EXIM bank is willing to finance SpaceX and sats on reusables it will happen.

  • Vladislaw
  • Vladislaw

    “Michael Hamel, VP and general manager of commercial space at Lockheed Martin, agreed with Simpson in that the cost of launch services has now become a key part of the equation when looking at the overall cost of buying and getting a satellite into space.”

  • windbourne

    The problem is the same issue that America has: TOO MANY MIDDLE MEN.
    For Airbus to get this price down, they have to bring it all inside. Yet, that is what European gov. is opposed to. They want to spread it around. But, once you do that, you have the same problem as L-Mart with Atlas V, and Boeing with their 787: Both have lost control over their systems.

    SpaceX, Tesla, Solar City, etc. are learning to do this right. Basically, bring it ALL inside, while cutting out the middle men with their multiple profits and bonuses that all add up.

    And if the operators really think that Airbus will have a re-usable system right from the git-go, they are kidding themselves. Not going to happen. SpaceX designed for this from the start, and then have spent a LONG time make change after change after change to get it this close. Basically, they have 8 years in the making of the re-usability.

  • windbourne

    Yeah, I was wondering if SpaceX might actually self-insure. IOW, if they lose the sat, then they will pay for a copy and will then launch for free.

    And if they are able to take the costs of launch down to say 30 million, but charge 60 million, while saving the customer from buying insurance, I think that might be a HUGE incentive.

    What would be interesting about that, is that just as SpaceX is driving down the costs of launches, they might drive down the costs of insurance, as well as force other launch systems to become more reliable.

  • windbourne

    Yes, but as I said, there is more loyalty from European sat companies towards European Launch companies. If that was not true, then these sat companies would not be saying ANYTHING to Airbus, and they would never have done so many launches with Airbus so far out. Basically, they did that to guarantee the European Space industry a chance to get their act together.
    OTOH, in another 5 years, if they do NOT have their act together, my guess is that they will have little choice but to switch to much lower costs and probably far more reliable spaceX.

  • windbourne

    And I think that SpaceX will not drop their price directly, but will instead take over the insurance for when the launch system is a re-usable.

    Basically, just as SpaceX is taking profits from the launch industry, they will probably move to taking more profits from the insurance industry (which makes HUGH profits on launches).

  • windbourne

    First off, Arianespace simply markets and launches the rocket. They build nothing. It is Airbus that builds Ariane (and vega). Right?
    Secondly, companies can be global, but still loyal to their nations. In China, many of their global companies are ran by party members and are very loyal to their nation.
    And the same is true in Europe. Over and over, esp. in France, Italy, and Germany, I see their companies giving preferences to LOCAL companies then elsewhere, even when it is quite a bit more expensive.

    BTW, that is how American companies used to operate, and I think that we should return to it, since we are pretty much the only insane nation. Not entirely, but I do think that we need to restore much of what we lost starting with reagan.
    So, I admire European companies for remaining loyal to their nations.

    BTW, simple examples of this would be your oil and chemical companies. European nat gas prices has been above American prices for decades, which is used in MANY MANY Chemical reactions. Heck, fertilizer counts on heavy use of Cheap nat gas. Bayer used to make it in Germany and then ship it to America, even when we were about 1/2 of the price of Germany (and our labor is cheaper to boot).
    BUT, it was when our nat gas prices fell to 1/8th of the price of European nat gas, that bayer finally broke down and moved manufacturing for fertilizers and many other items here.
    THe same is true in the oil industry. Oil refineries are much cheaper in America than in Europe (save france), due to our oil, electrical and labor costs. BUT, it was only when oil prices in America collapsed that European oil companies finally moved a number of their refining operations elsewhere.

    Again, I do not fault these companies for being loyal to their nation. However, to claim that they will ALWAYS go with the lowest costs is just plain false.

  • Tonya

    I understand your point, but loyalty isn’t the right word. There is communication, that’s all, and it isn’t even particularly friendly.

    I would also add that in business in general, there is very little loyalty or identification as being “European”. The self identification and loyalty which is natural to everyone is still firmly at the national level, the European identification is a weak one, even in strong EU supporters such as Germany.

    SES for example was originally founded with the heavy involvement of the Luxembourg Gov’t, and their direct broadcast policy was actually extremely disruptive, and essentially destroyed the EU technology roadmap on that matter (which wasn’t very good). Their operations center in America is now larger than their headquarters in Luxembourg.

    Inmarsat will launch with almost anyone, they’ve used Sea Launch, Proton and even Atlas for their current fleet. Their head office is in the centre of London, and like many it’s there because it’s a global business first rather than European. The UK of course has no involvement in the Ariane program.

    Eutelsat is the only one that I think would have any natural loyalty factor, being French and have much closer ties between it’s management and those involved in the French aerospace industry.

  • windbourne

    And you think that a couple of sales proves that?

  • Tonya

    My comment about Arianespace was towards “eclectic student”, who seemed to be confusing the functions of Arianespace and ESA. His comments were quite inaccurate, in particular the “guaranteed government payloads”. The situation with Government payloads in Europe is actually fairly similar to that of American astronauts, the money is supporting the Russian Government.

    As I’ve just replied below, there’s very little European loyalty. Europeans, both private and business entities still largely identify themselves at the national level.

    I don’t really follow the argument about gas prices. Historically most European gas came from the North Sea, and whilst the UK largely consumed it’s own produce, Norway (which is not a member of the EU) sold to it’s larger neighbours.

    Europe now buys gas by pipeline from it’s neighbour Russia, plus LPG tankers from anywhere in the world. Qatar is a major supplier for example. I would assume industrial use such as manufacturing fertilizer, has many other costs to factor in, the major one being transportation.

    I actually have a relative who works in the oil and gas markets in London, and I can assure you there is little concept of either loyalty or even friends in that commercial world.

  • HyperJ

    No, but all I needed was one example to disprove *your* claim. One European customer has already shown that they don’t stick with Ariane because it is European.

  • windbourne

    Neither 1 nor a few launches disprove what I said.
    As I said, that as long as it moves in the direction that they want, then these companies will stay with Ariane for national loyalty reason.
    OTOH, if all that is going to happen is that airbus, esa, and arrianespace spend all of their time gripping about things, well, loyalty only goes so far.

  • Duncan Law-Green

    Falcon Heavy isn’t proven either, but SpaceX seems to be having no problem selling them…

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    How ironic. This from an LM executive. Neither of ULA’s owners are doing anything wrt reusable launch vehicles or prices SFAICT. Oldspace continues on with it’s oldspace ways. On the other continent however, ESA drops it’s prices so as to sort of match SpaceX. Go figure.
    Still waiting for CCtCap announcement.

  • windbourne

    Right now, ULA is in a new ‘hurry up and wait’. The new CEO, Brono, has just taken the helm, and it remains to be seen what he will do.
    Hopefully, just hopefully, he will NOT be more of the same.
    If he is, ULA is dead.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Given his background, I think ULA is going to be DOA except for DoD missions and a substantial subsidy in order to keep a 2nd launch provider.

  • Tonya

    So, same as they have been for the last decade?

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Yeah, guess so.

  • Aerospike

    ESA ist not a launch service provider. The relation of ESA to Arianespace is more like ULA and Air Force. So the situation is a little bit more complex and “ESA” can’t be dropped, just like the US Air Force can’t be dropped as a provider

    But of course if commercial sat providers won’t use Ariane Rockets anymore, then European Governments have to pay more for there independent launch capability… which would make the situation even more like we have with ULA in the US.

  • windbourne

    As one that is in the backyard to ULA and L-Mart Space, I hope that you are wrong.

    Sadly, I suspect that you are correct.

  • eclectic_student

    Arianespace is a private company…of which 34% of the shareholder capital comes from CNES, the French space agency. And each of the other shareholders are essentially the dominant defense contractors of the various member nations, not “too big to fail” but “too critical to our technology infrastructure to fail”. Not shareholders in the NYSE sense. So, I think it’s fair to say the arrangements are much less clear than a purely private company.

    Eutelsat is a French company, although they also now own what used to be SatMex and manage satellites to many other countries. I expect for European markets, they will always strongly consider Arianespace. It’s part of doing business in Europe. For SatMex and Asian markets, they may be more price-sensitive, but we’ll see.

    SES stands for Société Européenne des Satellites–although it serves markets all over the world, the government of Luxembourg remains a large shareholder. Again, for markets outside of Europe they probably feel little compulsion to stick to Arianespace (although they probably have a strong relationship there with many launches), but I think it’s unlikely they would take all their business away from Arianespace.

    Regarding Soyuz, it simply launches a different-sized payload. I don’t think it’s accurate to say very few European government payloads have launched on Ariane; in fact, I think you’d find about half of the payloads Ariane launched were government-related. But it’s true that Soyuz (mostly in Russia, since the Kourou Soyuz only cranked up in 2011) has launched quite a few, especially small time-sensitive payloads like probes. That’s part of the motivating force for developing Vega and Ariane 6, to nibble into some of that Soyuz market space.

    Europe, from a governmental position, doesn’t need to “beat” SpaceX, any more than it felt it had to “beat” Soyuz; they just need to gather enough launches to support the infrastructure and keep the jobs. So if Arianespace is keeping their vehicles busy–and they can do this with many fewer launches than Soyuz enjoys and SpaceX aims for–there will be little pressure on satellite providers. But if European countries feel their support costs are unsustainable, and they feel that some of these European-based companies are part of the problem by not sending enough business to Arianespace, there will be pressure.

    The bottom line, for me, is that I expect Arianespace will continue to compete in the commercial market into the 2020s. They’ll lose market share, but will continue to be one of the major launch providers worldwide.