A key aspect of the plan to ensure Europe’s market-leading space launch industry meets ambitious cost targets has come under scrutiny from competition regulators in Brussels.
The European Commission will investigate a plan for Airbus Safran Launchers, which is developing the Ariane 6 launch system to fly from 2020, to take control of launch operator Arianespace, which runs Europe’s launch complex in French Guiana.
Airbus Safran Launchers (ASL) – formed last year as a 50/50 joint venture between Ariane 5 prime contractor Airbus and propulsion specialists Safran – will buy the heavy third of Arianespace owned by France’s CNES space agency, giving it control of about 75% of the launch operator.
This consolidation of the Ariane programme – supported by the European Space Agency and the governments of its member states – is widely seen as a bold move to take politics out of the European launch industry and give it the freedom to compete on cost terms with US clean-sheet rival SpaceX. But the European Commission fears “the proposed transaction may result in less innovation and higher prices in the satellite and launch service markets”.
According to Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, ASL taking control of Arianespace may result in discrimination against satellite manufacturers competing with Airbus and may also discriminate in favour of payload adapters and dispensers from Airbus or ASL. The acquisition also risks giving priority to Ariane flights over those on Vega rockets, manufactured by Italy-based ELV on behalf of ESA and only commercialised through Arianespace.
The Commission raises concerns about preference for Ariane over Vega flights despite the fact the Ariane 6 launcher will use, as its solid boosters, the same motor that will form the main stages of an in-development Vega update, Vega C.
Airbus Group was quoted by Reuters news agency as noting the decision to investigate while stressing competition was global, not just within the European Union.
According to Commissioner Vestager: "A competitive space industry has a crucial role in strengthening the EU's industrial base and boosting our global competitiveness. The Commission therefore needs to make sure that all players in the space industry continue to have strong incentives to innovate".