Interview: Arianespace CEO on the roadmap to 2020 & beyond

Arianespace CEO Stéphane ISRAËL. All images in this article courtesy of Arianespace.

Arianespace is the world’s first commercial launch services provider, established in 1980 and rooted in the European space agencies and institutions. It has enjoyed a large commercial market share over its four decades of operation, but the rise of competitors and other national launch service programs have prompted the company to be more competitive both in pricing and in technological innovation.

“The Ariane 6, Vega C mark the beginning of a new journey in which the European launch sector will innovate more, and quicker,” says Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace.

Israël was addressing the media late last month, and we had an opportunity to sit down with him afterwards to get to know more about how the company plans to fight off the pressure coming from newer launch service providers and to cater to the rise of LEO constellations and newspace companies.

Responding to changing market needs

Israël has been the CEO of Arianespace since 2013, and he reveals that one of the first decisions he made when he joined the company was to decrease the price of small satellite launches. “We had an imbalanced order book – it was key to decrease price, as we also see competition increase in big satellite [launches]. The strong pressure has already started to be answered with Ariane 5, and we will go on answering it with Ariane 6,” he says.

Today, Arianespace has a backlog of €4.7 billion, and has orbited more than 50% of the communications satellites in service today, with 11 successful launches in 2017. There are 32 customers in its order books, with 56 launch contracts signed: 16 for Ariane 5, 2 for Ariane 6, 28 for Soyuz, and 10 for Vega & Vega C. Additionally, France’s Defence Minister Florence Parly has declared that the upcoming high resolution French-German military optical satellite CSO3 will also fly on the Ariane 6.

Israël does admit that the GEO market has been slow over the past two years as a whole. “It’s too early to say how this year will turn out; last year was slow, only nine [GEO] satellites were ordered on the market. But we expect a rebound of the market next year due to the necessity of renewing capacity,” he comments. “Our customers have hesitations on the right solution to implement in order to cope with new the demand for connectivity: is it LEO, MEO, or GEO?”

The Asia-Pacific landscape

According to Israël, the APAC region will play a role in this rebound – Arianespace has a long association with Asia, having launched ISRO’s first satellite (Ariane Passenger PayLoad Experiment, APPLE) in 1981. Since then, it has launched 82 satellites for 17 operators from 10 countries in APAC.

Arianespace currently has five launches contracted for APAC clients:

  • GSAT-11 (for ISRO) – 2018 – Ariane 5
  • GEO-KOMPSAT-2A (for KARI) – 2018 – Ariane 5
  • GEO-KOMPSAT-2B (for KARI) – 2019 – Ariane 5
  • JCSAT-17 (for Sky Perfect JSAT) – 2019 – Ariane 5
  • BSAT-4b (for B-SAT) – 2020 – Ariane 5

Additionally, it will be launching the Horizons 3e mission for Intelsat and SKY Perfect JSAT early September, as well as the BepiColombo mission to Mercury, a collaboration between JAXA and ESA. It will also be launching the James Webb telescope most likely in 2021 with the Ariane 5.

“Three more launches are set for the July to September period, and there will be more till the end of the year,” says Israël.

Arianespace has launched 60% of APAC satellites up to date, and has signed to launch 55% of the upcoming satellites in the region, preserving its historical market share in the region.

There are several unique factors about the APAC market, according to Israël: “Lots of local and national operators are present; the market is more spread out than in Europe. The APAC geography is also well-suited to the new trend in the market, which is connectivity: countries like Indonesia and India understand that terrestrial solutions are not enough. Step by step, the broadcast demand is now complemented by connectivity in remote areas, by the need for mobility and by Asian operators delivering solutions for airlines.”

Future plans

Vega C is scheduled to fly at the end of 2019, and Ariane 6’s maiden launch is scheduled for mid-2020. They both come with the same solid booster, the P120C – which was successfully fired in French Guiana on July 16.

P120C firing test on 16 July 2018.

With two versions, Ariane 6 can be tailored to the customers’ needs: “Ariane 62 mostly dedicated to institutional customers and Ariane64 for commercial ones,” explains Israël. It will be 40% cheaper than Ariane 5, will feature a lot more modularity, thanks to the restartable upper stage the volume available under fairing, and an auxiliary power unit, “perfectly adapted to constellations” and enabling  to reach different orbital planes. “This was not possible with the Ariane 5. The idea is to be able to serve all possible European payloads thanks to the complementarity between Ariane 6 and Vega C,” says Israël.

The critical design review of Ariane 6, the “maturity gate 7” is in process. “We have tested several times this year the Vinci and the Vulcain engines. The key milestones are completed,” says Israël.

“Ariane 6 is based on technologies proven on Ariane 5 – this is why we’re so confident we can stick to the schedule. The fact that the booster is common to both rockets Ariane 6 and Vega C is an advantage because it allows us to increase the production rate and does not trigger any difficulty.”

The Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS) – a modular carbon fiber dispenser designed by Avio – is adapted to Vega, which will allow the possibility of accommodating a whole launch on Vega with a multiple number of small satellites. Micro- and nano-satellites in containers and bigger satellites (e.g. 100 kilo) can be accommodated on the SSMS. “We’ve been awarded four contracts for the ‘Vega proof of concept’ flight targeted for the first half of 2019. This is very important because it’ll be the first European launcher fully dedicated to a ride-share solution,” says Israël. He sees the SSMS solution for Vega and the MLS for Ariane 6 as an important tool to target the new micro, nano, and small satellites market.

There are also three innovations that might play a significant role Arianespace’s roadmap to the future.

Prometheus, a liquid oxygen (LOX)-methane engine, will be tested on ground in 2020, and could go for full development at the next ESA ministerial Council late next year, for a possible flight in 2025. “It features a smaller structure and is simpler to operate as opposed to hydrogen [engines]. This is why we think it’s promising, although we’re happy to have cryogenic technologies today,” says Israël.

Callisto and Themis are demonstrators of first stage recoveries – the latter being larger than the former. The Callisto program, under the leadership of CNES, DLR and JAXA, is currently advancing; Themis is not a program yet, but could be the next one after Callisto, according to Israël.

Finally, the black upper stage is a lighter upper stage made of composite carbon material, offering greater performance for the payload. Israël says the company’s ambition is to fly it on the Ariane 6 in 2025.

“We will have to define the technological roadmap leading to 2030. By playing with these three building blocks, we could target to have an evolution of Ariane 6 in 2025 – it has not been decided yet, but it is something we could achieve,” he reveals.

It will be at the heart of the next ESA Ministerial Conference.

Commercial vs institutional launches

Israël emphasizes on the fact that Arianespace operates in an evolving market which addresses both commercial and institutional launches.

“The specificity of Arianespace compared to our competitor is that in our order book, 65% in value of customers are commercial. Only one-third are institutional. That is the long-lasting story of Arianespace, that we’ve always been more present in the commercial market. In case of our Californian competitor, it’s exactly the opposite: two-thirds of value is made of institutional launches, one third is commercial,” he points out.

“Moreover — and this is not criticism, I just want just to explain the market: our competitor has a dual pricing policy. For example, in March 2018, three GPS contracts have been awarded to our competitor, each for an amount of US$96.7m, and in recent press briefings, the CEO of SpaceX has announced that the price of a re-used rocket is US$50m. I’m just quoting public information; our understanding is that the order of magnitude between commercial versus institutional launch pricing is 1 to 2 [for SpaceX]. In Europe we don’t have this dual pricing policy. What is very important for Arianespace is to acquire a commitment from European institutions to Ariane 6 and Vega C, based on five Ariane 6 per year and two Vega C. Our baseline scenario is to deliver 11 Ariane 6 rockets per year, of which six will be for the commercial market…

In a landscape where competition is increasing, it’s very important to have your institutional anchor customers committed to you. We are progressing in this direction, but it is not done yet. ”

In the recent Franco-German Ministerial Council, Macron and Merkel made a statement highlighting the fact that they want to maximize the use of European launchers, that ESA is committed in this direction. Israël considers this tremendously important. “If we want a level playing field with our main competitor SpaceX, we need this commitment, it is absolutely key for us,” he concludes.

1 COMMENT

  1. Using $50m for a comparison is disengenuous; USAF Falcon 9 launches do not yet use a previously flown booster, so they’re paying full price. The USAF also demands extra “mission assurance” services commercial and NASA launches do not, making the total package more expensive.

    Also; at Ariane64’s price it’ll also be competing against the previously flown Falcon Heavy stockpile.

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