How Arianespace stood up to SpaceX in 2021

A solid year, if not exceptional. After a fairly nightmarish 2020 financial year, Arianespace ended 2021 with 15 launches on the clock, a figure up 50%, and an increase in turnover of around 1.25 billion euros. by 30%. The ArianeGroup subsidiary closed the year in the best of ways by putting into orbit, with an injection precision that blew the Americans away, the James Webb space telescope on Christmas Day. Admittedly, SpaceX remains out of reach, with 31 launches last year, its historic record. But the European group ensures not to be dropped. “We were leaders, and by far, in the commercial segment with 11.5 launches against 6 for our competitor, out of 21.5 launches in total”, underlines Stéphane Israël. SpaceX has indeed, in 2021, mainly carried out flights for its own needs (Starlink constellation) and its institutional customers (NASA, Pentagon).

This good performance by Arianespace should nevertheless be put into perspective. Of the 15 launches in 2021, only six were carried out by truly European launchers (three Ariane 5 and three Vega) from Guyana. The rest of the launches were carried out by Russian Soyuz launchers, which does not benefit the European space industry. Eight of these nine launches were carried out from Russia and Kazakhstan (Vostochny and Baikonur), against only one in Guyana. This Russian dependence is likely to last: while the initial plan was to replace Soyuz as soon as possible with Ariane 62, the light version of Ariane 6, Arianespace is in discussion with Russia to extend the Soyuz launch pad in French Guiana beyond 2023.

First launch of Ariane 6 at the end of 2022

The year 2022 promises to be decisive. Arianespace forecasts a very busy year, with up to 17 launches: four Ariane 5 out of the last five to be launched before its retirement; nine Soyuz (four from Guyana, five from Baikonur); three Vega-Cs, including its maiden launch scheduled for April; and the first Ariane 6 flight in the second half. The success of the latter appears absolutely essential: ArianeGroup has halted production of Ariane 5, the last copy of which will launch the European probe JUICE to the icy moons of Jupiter in 2023. If the rise in power of Ariane 6 were to be delayed , recourse to the Russian Soyuz would be necessary. Stéphane Israel assures in any case that he is confident about the first flight of Ariane 6 at the end of 2022, stressing that the elements of the first launcher, dedicated to combined tests (ground tests on the launch pad), are on their way to Kourou.

The 2022 financial year will be all the more decisive as major events are also planned for the competition. SpaceX is planning a first orbital flight of its giant Starship/Super Heavy launcher, which could take place in March. This monumental rocket (120m, 10 more than the Saturn V of the Apollo missions), with a capacity of 100 tons in low orbit, could reshuffle the cards of the space sector. Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space company, is also planning a first flight of its New Glenn heavy launcher this year, a goal that seems very ambitious given the problems with the development of the BE-4 engines. ULA, the space joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is also aiming for a first flight this year of its Vulcan launcher, which is to replace the old Atlas and Delta, but it is also suffering from the delay of the BE-4s, which equip its first stage.

22 orders in 2021

Arianespace can in any case rely on solid fundamentals. The year 2021 enabled it to add 22 satellites to its order book, including several to be launched on Ariane 6 (Galileo, Optus, Skyloom). Its order book reached 36 launches (5 Ariane 5, 11 Ariane 6, 12 Soyuz and 8 Vega and Vega-C). A successful first Ariane 6 and Vega-C flight would probably lead to additional contracts.

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