The Best Laid Plans: Europe’s Ambitious Launch Year Goes Awry Due to International Tensions, Schedule Delays

The James Webb Space Telescope lifted off on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, at 13:20 CET on 25 December 2021 on its exciting mission to unlock the secrets of the Universe. (Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

On Christmas Day 2021, an European Ariane 5 rocket roared off its launch pad in French Guiana with the most expensive payload the booster had ever carried, the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope. The launcher performed perfectly, sending the most powerful space telescope on a journey to its final destination 1.5 million km (900 million miles) from Earth. The launch was so accurate that Webb should have sufficient propellant to perform science operations for much longer than its planned 10-year lifetime.

There was a collective sigh of relief among the European, American and Canadian scientists and engineers involved in the long-delayed program. It was a superb Christmas gift to a world suffering through the second year of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

As they celebrated the arrival of a new year, officials at Arianespace and the European Space Agency (ESA) could look back in satisfaction and forward in great anticipation. Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana had hosted three launches each of the Ariane 5 and Vega rockets as well as a Russian Soyuz ST-B carrying a pair of Galileo navigation satellites. Arianespace and its Russian partner, Starsem, had conducted eight Soyuz-2.1b launches that placed 248 OneWeb broadband satellites into Earth orbit.

The new year would see the maiden flights of the new Ariane 6 and Vega C boosters, seven Soyuz launches to complete OneWeb’s constellation of 648 satellites, and the piece de resistance, the launch of Europe’s first rover to the surface of Mars aboard a Russian Proton rocket.

Seven months later, the plan lies in ruins. Although Vega C debuted in July, Europe has been able to accomplish little of its ambitious launch plan. Call it bad karma. Or, the law of gravity: what goes up must come down. Having reached unprecedent heights in 2021, Europe’s bold ambitions have come crashing down as a result of factors largely outside of its control.

But, 2022 isn’t over yet. Additional Ariane 5 launches are scheduled in the five months ahead. And while Europe’s large rocket programs have suffered setbacks, a new group of small satellite launch providers are gearing to conduct flights from spaceports in the United Kingdom and Norway.

Soyuz-2 rocket launches 34 OneWeb broadband satellites from the Guiana Space Center. (Credit: Copyright ESA-CNES-Arianespace/Optique Video du CSG – P Piron)

A Good Start, and Then

The 2022 launch campaign started out well enough on Feb. 10 when a Russian Soyuz ST-B rocket launched 34 broadband satellites for London-based OneWeb from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana.

Soyuz rockets had now launched 428 satellites. Only six more launches, spaced out roughly a month apart, would be needed to fully deploy the company’s satellite constellation later in the year. The next batch of spacecraft was scheduled to fly on March 5 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

It would never occur. Two weeks after the French Guiana launch, Russia invaded Ukraine. The European Union, Great Britain, the United States and other nations protested the attack and imposed sanctions on Russia. Relations between Russia and the West plunged to their lowest level since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980’s.

The result was a strange scene at Baikonur. The Soyuz-2.1b topped with 36 OneWeb satellites was rolled out to the launch pad, ready to add to the company’s growing constellation. All OneWeb had to do is promise Russia that the satellites would never be used for military purposes. Oh, and the UK government had to divest its part ownership of the company.

At the snowy outpost, 2 Intellian terminals dot the landscape connecting with the OneWeb satellites that orbit overhead. (Credit: Hughes)

Russia’s demands were widely seen as a poison pill designed to cancel the launch. OneWeb had marketed its services to various Western militaries and civilian agencies that need reliable broadband services in remote locations such as the Arctic. The company was not willing to give up these potentially valuable market segments.

The UK government had spent $500 million to help bail OneWeb out of bankruptcy in 2020; it wasn’t going to divest its interest in the company with the constellation partly deployed. OneWeb was a valuable investment for a nation that found itself no longer able to participate in the European Union’s satellite programs after exiting the union in January 2020.

So, OneWeb and the UK government predictably refused the demands. Roscosmos removed the Soyuz-2.1b rocket from the launch pad at Baikonur and took OneWeb’s satellites off the booster. The Russians said the company would not receive a refund of its money. The fate of the 36 satellites remains unclear.

Arianespace lost its role in launching OneWeb satellites as the company reached an agreement with U.S.-based SpaceX to complete the deployment of the constellation on Falcon 9 rockets. Cooperation with Russia on all commercial launches of Soyuz rockets was suspended indefinitely due to Arianespace’s compliance with European sanctions.

A Mars Dream, Deferred

ExoMars orbiter and rover (Credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

The Russian invasion of Ukraine ruptured cooperation between ESA and Roscosmos, the state corporation that runs Russia’s space program. The result was the cancelation of the launch of the European-led ExoMars mission aboard a Russian Proton rocket in September. The mission consisted of an European-built Rosalind Franklin rover and a Russian descent module.

Favorable windows for launching spacecraft to Mars occur roughly every two years and last for a few months at a time. With only months to go before the planned launch, ESA lacked sufficient time to replace the Russian descent module and find another launcher before the window would close.

ESA is exploring cooperation with NASA on how to move forward with the mission. The launch is now expected no earlier than 2028. The Rosalind Franklin rover will spend years in a very expensive, climate-controlled storage facility before it can explore the frozen surface of Mars.

Ariane 5 launches on June 22, 2022. (Credit: Arianespace)

A Launch and a Delay

It would be more than four months after the Soyuz ST-B in February before a rocket roared off a launch pad again in French Guiana. On June 22, an Ariane 5 booster sent the GSAT-24 and MEASAT-3d communications satellites to geosynchronous orbit.

GSAT-24 was built by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and leased through the space agency’s commercial arm, NewSpace India Ltd., to direct satellite broadcaster Tata Play. NewSpace India was established in 2019 to advance the commercialization of the nation’s government-dominated space industry.

MEASAT-3d was built by Airbus Defence and Space for Malaysia’s MEASAT Global Berhad using the Eurostar 3000 satellite bus. The spacecraft will provide communications services to Malaysia and nearby nations and has an expected lifetime of 18 years.

Artist’s view of the configuration of Ariane 6 using four boosters (A64) (Credit: ESA – D. Ducros)

By the time Ariane 5 lifted off, there had been more bad news about its successor, Ariane 6. Earlier in June, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher revealed that the rocket’s maiden would be delayed into 2023 due to a series of development issues.

Ariane 6 is designed to give Europe a more affordable, competitive and flexible launch vehicle than Ariane 5, which typically launches two large geosynchronous communications satellites at a time. Ariane 6 can be launched in a two-stage configuration, or augmented with between two or four solid rockets to accommodate heavier payloads.

Vega-C lifts off on its maiden flight on July 13, 2022. (Credit: Arianespace)

A Successful Debut

The bright spot of Europe’s 2022 launch campaign came on July 13 as the Avio-built Vega C rocket launched seven payloads into orbit on its maiden flight. The flight carried the passive LARES 2 satellite, which is equipped with laser mirrors to allow scientists to study Earth’s gravitational field and conduct general relativity measurements. Six CubeSats with various scientific purposes were launched as secondary payloads.

Vega C Maiden Launch Payloads

DateLaunch VehiclePayloadCustomer(s)NationsType/Purpose
July 13, 2022Vega CLARES 2Italian Space AgencyItalyPrimary payload equipped with laser mirrors to study Earth gravitational field and general relativity
ALPHANPC SpacemindItalyCubeSat designed to study phenomena related to Earth’s magnetosphere, such as the Northern and Southern Lights
AstroBio CubeSat (ABCS)Sapienza University of RomeItalyCubeSat for detecting biomolecules in space
CELESTA (ROBUSTA 1D)CERN/University of MontpellierFranceCubeSat to monitor space radiation
GreenCubeSapienza University of RomeItalyCubeSat equipped to grow plants in microgravity
MTCube-2 (ROBUSTA 1F)University of MontpellierFranceCubeSat to test radiation effects on memory components in space
TRISAT-RUniversity of MariborSloveniaCubeSat to investigate and map ionizing radiation in medium Earth orbit
Source: Wikipedia

The upgraded version of the Vega booster can deliver 2.3 metric tons into polar orbit compared with 1.5 metric tons by its predecessor.

“Vega C features a new, more powerful first stage, P120C, based on Vega’s P80. Atop that is a new second stage, Zefiro-40, and then the same Zefiro-9 third stage as used on Vega,” ESA said in a press release. “The re-ignitable upper stage is also improved. AVUM+ has increased liquid propellant capacity, to deliver payloads to multiple orbits depending on mission requirements and to allow for longer operational time in space, to enable extended missions.

“The P120C motor will do double service, with either two or four units acting as strap-on boosters for Ariane 6. Sharing this component streamlines industrial efficiency and improves cost-effectiveness of both launchers,” the space agency added.

Vega C’s first commercial flight is scheduled for November. The booster will orbit the Airbus-built will Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 Earth observation satellites.

“With 30cm-native-resolution, best-in-class geolocation accuracy and twice-a-day revisit capability, the four Pléiades Neo satellites unlock new possibilities with the ultimate in reactivity. The satellite constellation has been fully funded and manufactured by its operator Airbus, whose team will also operate the satellites and sell services to commercial customers,” Arianespace said in a press release.

While they were ecstatic about the success of the flight, Avio and ESA officials were grappling with another problem caused by Russia’s invasion of its neighbor. The AVUM+ upper stage uses an engine built by the Ukrainian company Yuzhmash; the war put future deliveries of the vital component on indefinite hold.

In April, Aschbacher said Avio had taken delivery of six Ukrainian engines to cover Vega C launches through the end of 2023. ESA and Avio are examining several options in case Ukraine cannot deliver additional engines. One possibility is to accelerate development of the M10 liquid oxygen/methane engine that would replace the AVUM+ and Zefiro-9 stages on the upgraded Vega E booster.

Vega and Ariane 5 launch pads at Europe’s Spaceport. (Credit: ESA–Stephane Corvaja)

A Brighter Future

With seven months of 2022 in the books, Europe has launched only three orbital rockets from its spaceport in French Guiana. The 43 payloads placed into orbit included 34 OneWeb satellites, two geosynchronous communications satellites, a passive scientific satellite and six CubeSats.

Vega C made a successful debut, but launches of the new Ariane 6 booster and Europe’s first rover to Mars were delayed. Arianespace lost six launches of OneWeb satellites on Soyuz boosters to rival SpaceX.

Arianespace Launches
January – July 2022

DateLaunch VehicleCustomer(s)Nation(s)PurposeSatellites
Feb. 10, 2022Soyuz ST-B*OneWebUKBroadband communications34
June 22, 2022Ariane 5NSIL/Tata Sky, MEASATIndia, MalaysiaGeosynchronous communications2
July 13, 2022Vega CItalian Space Agency, NPC Spacemind, Sapienza University of Rome, CERN, University of Monpellier, University of MariborFrance, Italy, SloveniaMultiple scientific7
Total:43
Source: Wikipedia
* Russian Soyuz rocket launch conducted by Arianespace.

The rest of the year is looking a little better, however. In addition to the Vega C launch in November, Wikipedia’s launch schedule indicates there could be as many as seven additional Ariane 5 launches during the remaining five months of the year. That’s a high number of flights in a short period of time, so it’s likely some of the flights will slip into 2023.

As the table below shows, only two Ariane 5 flights have dates attached to them. A number of the planned launches have only one satellite manifested. Additional payloads need to added to the flights before the launches can be conducted.

Upcoming Arianespace Launches

DateLaunch VehicleSatellite(s)Customer(s)Type/Purpose
Sept. 6, 2022Ariane 5Konnect VHTSEutelsatGeosynchronous communications
Nov. 16, 2022Vega CPléiades Neo 5, Pléiades 6Airbus Defence and SpaceEarth observation
Late November 2022Ariane 5MTG-I1*EUMETSATWeather forecasting
Q4 2022Ariane 5Galaxy 35, Galaxy 36IntelsatGeosynchronous Communications
Q4 2022Ariane 5Hotbird 13FEutelsatGeosynchronous communications
Q4 2022Ariane 5Ovzon-3*OvzonGeosynchronous communications
TBDAriane 5Eutelsat 10B*EutelsatGeosynchronous communications
TBDAriane 5Syracuse 4B (Comsat-NG 2)France Directorate General of ArmamentsGeosynchronous communications
Source: Wikipedia
* Second payload required for launch

Possible Commercial Launches From Europe

While ESA and Arianspace look to get back on track, a number of private companies are aiming to conduct launches from new spaceports in Europe. Four European startups — Isar Aerospace, Orbex, Rocket Factory Ausgburg and Skyrora — and American launch provider ABL plan to conduct maiden flights of their new small satellite boosters. Virgin Galactic is schedule to conduct its first launch outside of the United States in September from Spaceport Cornwall in England.

It’s worth noting that with the exception of Virgin Galactic’s launch, the dates for the planned launches are tentative. It is likely that some or perhaps many of them will slip into next year.

Launches Planned From Spaceports in Europe

DateLaunch VehicleLaunch ProviderLaunch SiteCustomer(s)Purpose/Payloads
SeptemberLauncherOne / Boeing 747 Cosmic GirlVirgin Orbit (USA)Spaceport Cornwall (England)MultipleSixth launch, multiple smallsats
Q4PrimeOrbex (Scotland)Sutherland (Scotland)Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (UK)Maiden flight test, experimental payload
Q4PrimeOrbex (Scotland)Sutherland (Scotland)TriSept (USA)Dedicated rideshare mission with satellite dispenser
Q4PrimeOrbex (Scotland)Sutherland (Scotland)In-Space Missions (England)Technology demonstration, Faraday-2b
Q4RFA OneRocket Factory Augsburg (Germany)Andoya (Norway)Lunar Research Service (Ukraine)Maiden flight test, technology demonstration
Q4RS1ABL (USA)SaxaVord (Scotland)Lockheed Martin (USA)Maiden flight test, technology demonstration
Q4Skyrora XLSkyrora (Scotland)SaxaVord (Scotland)Maiden flight test
Q4SpectrumIsar Aerospace (Germany)Andoya (Norway)VariousMaiden flight test, five small satellites
Source: Wikipedia

The table above show possible launches that are planned from four European spaceports located in England, Scotland and Norway. They will be the first launches to ever originate from Spaceport Cornwall, Sutherland and SaxaVord in the United Kingdom. The Andoya Space Center in Norway is an existing suborbital launch range that is preparing to host its first orbital launches by two German companies, Isar Aerospace and Rocket Factory Augsburg.

Most launches take place to the east to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation. Launching to the west requires more energy and limits payloads. Due to the location of the new European spaceports, i.e., being located west of population centers, most satellites will be placed in sun synchronous orbits traveling over the poles. That will have the effect of limiting the number and types of launches being conducted out of the spaceports.