European Space Agency predicts European space revolution


The European Space Agency will add two new types of satellite launch vehicle to its rocket fleet in a move it says will revolutionise the European space launch industry with an increase in launch capacity. As a result, its Arianespace arm, which launches half the world’s commercial satellites, is preparing for an exceptionally busy year.

Having three rockets to launch satellites means the European Space Agency (ESA) has greater flexibility in deciding which rocket will be the best for its payloads. This will also widen its operational menu, leading to more launches. Indeed, after all three rockets become operational in the second half of the year, the ESA could be conducting at least one launch a month.

At a press conference last week, ESA head Jean-Jacques Dordain said that 2011 is be the year of the launchers. “By the end of 2011 the ESA will not look like it does today. It is a revolution for Europe,” he said.

For the past 30 years the ESA has used one launcher in the form of the Ariane series, culminating in the Ariane 5 capable of launching up to ten tons into low Earth orbit. Now the ESA is getting two additional launchers that will cover the whole payload spectrum. The Aiane 5 heavy launch vehicle will be joined by Russia’s medium lift Soyuz and the smaller Vega rocket at the Guiana Space Centre near Korou in French Guiana.

The country is an optimum location for launching satellites due to its location on the equator, meaning that few trajectory changes are needed to put a satellite into orbit. In addition, the rotation of the earth is strongest at the equator and this gives the satellite an added boost. Therefore less propellant is needed. Satellites can be launched from anywhere, but it is cheaper and easier to launch from the equator. For example, a Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan would be able to carry 1.7 tons of cargo into space whereas if it launched from French Guiana it would be able to carry 2.8 tons the same distance, according to the Guiana Space Centre.

A new launch facility has been constructed at the Space Centre especially for the Soyuz launcher, allowing Russia to shift some of its operations away from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and lessen its dependency on its neighbour. Russia pays Kazakhstan $115 million a year to use Baikonur, according to the St Petersburg Times. Russia is also developing the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East to reduce dependency on Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz rocket is capable of carrying around 3.5 tons. Its first mission will be to launch the first of two satellites in Europe’s Galileo system, which is a rival to the United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation. The first Galileo launch will take place some time between August 15 and September 15, according to the ESA.

The European-designed Vega rocket takes care of the lighter end of the market, with a capacity of 1.7 tons. It will use the old Ariane 1, 2 and 3 launch pads, which have been renovated for it. The first Vega launch is scheduled to take place during the second half of this year. Because Vega is a new design, it will initially only carry scientific spacecraft rather than expensive commercial payloads, the ESA says.

According to the UK Space Strategy, the overall world market for the space industry is likely to grow from £160 billion in 2008, to at least £400 billion by 2030, with a yearly growth rate of 5%. In September 2010 Space News reported that the global satellite market stands at between 20 and 30 satellite launches a year.

Arianespace, which handles the production, marketing and operation of the Ariane launchers on behalf of the ESA, is the world’s largest launcher of commercial satellites. Since its creation in 1980 it has launched 285 payloads, accounting for more than half the commercial satellites in service. Currently its order book stands at 31 satellites and six government payloads to be launched aboard the Ariane 5 in addition to 18 Soyuz launches, according to Arianespace.

In spite of its success, Arianespace has been losing money and has been looking for financial assistance from European governments. The matter will be decided at the ESA Council Meeting in March. Last week, European governments ordered an audit of the company to determine why it s losing money, Space News reports. There are several potential reasons: it could be overpaying suppliers; it could be wasting money; it could be because launching space vehicles is unprofitable, or that attempting to get most of its funding from commercial launches is unfeasible.

Arianespace is set to face competition from the United States, China and India and other emerging nations such as Brazil and even South Africa. In December last year India signed a five year contract with EADS-Astrium for the joint manufacture and launch of satellites, according to the Deccan Chronicle. India will launch four new satellites over the next two years and is also working on its own satellite launch vehicles, such as the four ton capacity GSLV-Mk III, the Indian Express reports.

In addition, China plans to take up a 10% share of the world’s commercial satellite market, and 15% of the commercial launch business by 2015, China Daily reported in October last year. This year China will conduct three commercial launches for France, Pakistan and Nigeria, and will launch another three satellites next year. Over the last three decades China has conducted 30 commercial launches for 14 countries, and is increasingly looking to developing nations for more contracts, China Daily reported.

The European Space Agency currently has 18 member nations and will soon admit Romania as number 19. These member states provide 75% of the ESA’s $5.35 billion budget, with another 20% coming from the European Union. In 2009 the European Union’s space budget was $4.6 billion, compared to $17.8 billion for the United States, $3 billion for Japan, $2 billion for Russia and between $1.5 and $2 billion for China, the St Petersburg Times reports.

Much of the ESA’s budget is spent on Earth observation missions, scientific exploration, the Galileo satellite system and manned missions to the International Space Station (ISS). As the ESA does not have its own manned flight capability, it sends astronauts into space aboard Russian and American rockets. However, the ESA delivers cargo to the ISS and is set to launch its second robot freighter, the Johannes Kepler, to the ISS on February 15. The ESA pays two thirds of the Guiana Space Centre’s annual budget.