The joint marketing of the Atlas and Proton fleet is a major threat to Arianespace.

Tim Furniss/PARIS

IT WAS THE THIRD day of the Paris air show, and Arianespace chairman Charles Bigot was rattled. The day before, Lockheed Martin and Khrunichev of Russia had announced the formation of International Launch Services (ILS) to market jointly the Atlas and Proton booster fleet. The ILS objective is to capture 50% of the commercial launcher market (Flight International, 21-27 June).

Bigot can always be relied upon to be refreshingly frank, but on this occasion he responded to the ILS "aggressive declaration" with disarming understatement. He called it "unfortunate", adding: "Competition is competition, that's fine, but the aggressive tone of ILS is uncalled for. We don't want a war, but, when a giant like Lockheed Martin is capable of such a tone, it augurs for quite a battle in the future."

The largest and most lucrative part of the launcher market, with many customers being based in the fast-growing Asia Pacific region, is for the launch of communication satellites. It is estimated that, for the next few years, up to 20 communications satellites need to be launched each year into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). Arianespace holds 50% of the market and has no intention of losing any of that share, despite facing its stiffest competition yet.

This comes, not only from ILS, but also from China and the planned McDonnell Douglas Delta 3, which has been given a kick-start of ten contracts. Arianespace is also marketing aggressively its as-yet, unproven launcher, the Ariane 5. It signed ten contracts worth $2.5 billion at Paris for the production of 14 Ariane 5 boosters, covering launches to 2000. A second contract for 50 more, is expected to be signed in 1998.

The Ariane 5, like the Ariane 4, is being marketed mainly on its ability to carry two large communications-spacecraft, with a combined weight of 6,800kg, while competitive systems offer single-satellite launches only. This should enable Arianespace to offer a cheaper price of about $50 million per customer, for the shared ride, compared with $90 million for an Atlas ride. The Ariane 5 must, however, be flown on two successful test flights before gaining commercial credibility.

Credibility is the challenge facing China, which has snapped up ten contracts, but has a launcher, the Long March 2E, with an unenviable record, including two explosions, and a new model, the 3B, which has yet to be flown. Although offering cheaper flights, China is unlikely to take a much larger share of the market. Japan is not a serious competitor yet, as its H2 booster is too expensive, and is heavily booked for national launches.

The Proton is a highly successful launcher and, under the ILS umbrella with Western commercial influence, could prove to be a winner, particularly as it offers, with the Atlas, a launch-to-GTO range of between 2,250kg and 4,600kg, and the ability to switch customers from one vehicle to another in case of delays. Arianespace suffered the consequences of having a huge launch manifest in 1995-6, when two missions failed frustrating many subsequently delayed customers.

The Atlas fleet has shown an impressive ability to be flown on successive, successful missions in a short timeframe. The McDonnell Douglas Delta 3 is expected to continue the long run of launches experienced by the Delta 2. Its GTO capability is basically the same as that of the most powerful Atlas 2AS, however, and it may lose out to ILS, although not for Government work, which provides much of the Delta business.

Bigot's company, however, still leads the way, with an outstanding order book of 38 satellites, worth over $3 billion. Arianespace won 13 of the 25 launch contracts awarded in 1994, during which time it generated sales of $961 billion. It plans to fly 17 commercial flights up to mission number V92 in late 1996. The first fully commercial Arianespace Ariane 5 flight in late 1996 will be its third, and will carry the PanAmSat 6, while the second European Space Agency-funded demonstration flight will carry Intelsat 709, originally booked to fly on an Ariane 4.

Source: Flight International