Airbus Defence and Space

Ariane, a European launcher for a global market

Looking at how the commercial space market has evolved, we can see that Europe’s development of a launcher for the geostationary market, together with a commercial organisation to sell it, has opened up access to space and encouraged the explosion of a vast space telecommunications market, which in turn has fed the demand for launcher upgrades.

The failure of its Europa launcher programme, which was unable to place a single payload in orbit during the four attempts made from 1968 to 1971, forced Europe to make some difficult choices. On the one hand, they had to go right back to the drawing board and design a new launcher which would be developed as an integrated system rather than a collection of national components. On the other, they had to find a way of launching the satellites which had been designed to fly on Europa; in particular the two Franco–German Symphonie telecommunications satellites.

On 9 October 1972, a letter from US president Richard Nixon assured his European partners that American launch capacity would be available, provided that the satellites carried complied with the treaties in force, particularly the Intelsat convention, which gave this organisation – dominated by the American Comsat – a monopoly on international space telecommunications. Given that there was no alternative, the Europeans had to comply with this diktat and the Symphonie satellites, placed in orbit by American Delta rockets, were only used for experimental link-ups, although they did demonstrate a number of new technologies. This unfortunate situation served to boost acceptance of the Ariane programme in 1973. At the time, only Intelsat and Canada possessed civil telecommunications satellites. The United States and Indonesia were to follow shortly after, and all these satellites were built in the United States, primarily by Hughes.

The Ariane revolution

The arrival of Ariane was to change the picture completely. First of all, it gave Europeans the means to realise their ambitions, and France, Germany and Italy were able to orbit their own satellites. Then, by giving independent access to new domestic and regional operators, it forced the Americans to relax the Intelsat monopoly. Brazil, Japan, Arabsat and Eutelsat were to enter the game, soon to be followed in 1988 by two purely commercial entities, which rapidly became giants: the American PanAmSat and SES from Luxembourg.

Although the market accessible to Ariane had been estimated at 40 to 50 satellites from 1980–1990 – the aim being to launch half of that number – a total of 62 satellites was to be carried by the European launcher during the decade, and more than twice that number in the following 10 years. Countless new operators now trust Ariane to launch their businesses, while the major players continue to rely on it again and again.

1/ Preparation in Kourou of Marecs A, ESA’s first maritime telecommunications satellite launched by Ariane 1 on 20 December 1981. A total of 62 satellites were to be carried on the new European launcher between 1980 and 1990, and more than twice that number over the following 10 years. (© ESA)

2/ From 1984, Arianespace offered dual launches on Ariane 3. This picture shows the first launch of an Ariane 3, on 10 November 1984, carrying the Spacenet F2 and Marecs 2B satellites. (© ESA – CNES – Arianespace)

3/ 1 July 2009: Ariane 5 takes off carrying the largest commercial telecommunications satellite ever launched, TerreStar-1. This launch once again illustrated the operational capacity of Ariane 5, which is the only launcher available on the commercial market capable of handling a complete range of missions. (© ESA – CNES – Arianespace)

So many satellites – and bigger too!

This operator boom was to enable the European satellite industry to expand beyond its national boundaries and in 15 years it became a leading global player, producing increasingly complex and more powerful satellites. For years, it was claimed that advances in miniaturisation would help keep satellite size and weight under control or even reduce it. This was to underestimate the operators’ appetite for adding capacity and power at every opportunity!

From 1984, Arianespace offered dual launches for 1.2-tonne satellites on Ariane 3, crossing the two-tonne threshold in 1985, then breaking the four-tonne barrier in 1989, and then exceeding five tonnes in 2000 and six tonnes in 2005. Launcher capacity followed suit. From 1.7 tonnes to transfer orbit in 1979, it rose to nearly five tonnes on the later Ariane 4 versions, leaping to nearly 10 tonnes on the current Ariane 5 ECA – and it should come close to 12 tonnes with the forthcoming upgrades proposed for Ariane 5 ME.

For its part, the market has diversified considerably, with a few very large platforms weighing more than six tonnes being launched for specific broadband applications, although most operators continue to use satellites of between four and five tonnes to maintain their constellations or to diversify into HDTV (high-definition TV). Lighter platforms of between two and a half and three tonnes are used by the major operators to fine-tune their networks or by new entrants to start up their operations. “We have never seen such diversity in satellite masses,” says Jean-Yves le Gall, CEO of Arianespace. “With the additional flexibility offered once Soyuz starts launching from French Guiana, the Ariane system is particularly well placed to serve this type of market.”

Because market needs are still changing, both in terms of quantity and type of satellites launched, and because competition is increasingly stiff, we need more than ever to be ready for the launches of tomorrow. This is precisely why the report commissioned in May by the French Prime Minister, François Fillon, contained proposals along these lines. “It’s decision time,” concludes Airbus Defence and Space’s CEO François Auque.