Arianespace counters low-cost startups with more flexibility

19 Jun 2014

Arianespace is responding to the challenge from SpaceX with a move toward greater flexibility for its Ariane 5 ME (mid-life evolution) and a new business structure that will see all rocket construction brought under one roof.

Stephane Israel, chairman and CEO of Arianespace, underlined the reliability of the Ariane 5, which has had 59 consecutive successful launches and how has a 4-billion-euro order book stretching out three years.

Asia Pacific accounts for 30% of Arianespace’s sales and represents 64% of the commercial satellite launch market in the region.

Asked about the challenge from SpaceX, Israel said it was important not to overestimate nor to underestimate the competition. He cited high-profile start-ups like Sealaunch and Proton that have faded away because of their lack of reliability.

However, Israel did acknowledge that the real innovation that SpaceX brought to the market was how to put the entire launcher construction under one roof. He said that its shareholders Airbus and Safran’s recent announcement for the new joint venture does the same for the Europeans.

On the technical front, the new Ariane 5 ME will feature a re-ignitable second stage that will allow for much more flexibility in positioning satellites, though at considerable cost.

Richard Bowles, managing director of Arianespace Singapore, said changes were coming in the industry with Indonesia being the first to have a satellite owned by a bank.

BRIsat will be launched by an Ariane 5 sometime in 2016. Bowles noted that given Bank Rakyat Indonesia was leasing so many transponders for its bank network that it simply made economic sense to send up its own satellite.

Looking forward, Bowles said that voice communication was making a comeback with high-throughput satellites used for cellular backhaul.

With just one hop of around 300 ms, it is possible to get away with using satellites to connect a remote cell site to the network without users noticing the latency.

Low-earth orbit constellations is also a potential growth area. Currently, Ariane 5 can send six to eight LEO satellites into orbit in one pane. The 5 ME would be able to do two panes with its re-ignitable second stage, but at a high cost. However, Bowles cautioned against the hype that LEO communications promised, citing competition and regulation on the one hand, and how constellations like Iridium had failed to live up to the hype on the other.

Relationships with Russia following the reunification or annexation of Crimea was of much interest given Ariane’s use of the Soyuz. Bowles stressed that this was a Europeanized Soyuz, manufactured by the Russians but with some European customization. He said that there was no concern about its use for the foreseeable future on security or sanction grounds. Of greater concern was how Russians were charging more and more for the Soyuz each year.


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