SpaceX lands launch contract with Arianespace after Vega rocket fails twice

In a rare victory for the international launch competition, SpaceX landed a contract to launch an Italian Earth observation satellite from the European launch monopoly and political heavyweight Arianespace.

After spending most of a decade with its head in the sand as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket quickly came to dominate the global launch market, Arianespace has become increasingly dependent on its ability to influence politicians to force member states of the European Union to launch any domestic satellites and spacecraft on its Ariane 5, Ariane 6 and Vega rockets. With the exception of a few hesitant and lethargic tech development programs that have yet to bear any exploitable fruit, the company – heavily subsidized by European governments – has almost completely failed to tackle the threat posed by SpaceX head-on by giving the priority to the development of rockets that can in fact compete with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy in terms of cost and performance.

Instead, over the past five years or so, Arianespace has increasingly exerted its political clout in an effort to legally force European Union countries to embark on much more expensive Ariane rockets.

A recent development offers the best glimpse yet of what many European space agencies are likely to suffer from as their governments have given up access to an increasingly competitive launch industry – often apparently in exchange for the selection of subcontractors by Arianespace or the (re) location of development centers or factories. in some countries. Notably, in September 2021, the Italian Space Agency (ASI) confirmed signs that it was moving the launch of its COSMO SkyMed CSG-2 Earth observation satellite from a new Arianespace rocket to SpaceX’s Falcon 9. .

The second second generation COSMO SkyMed satellite (CSG-2) was to be launched with VEGA-C by 2021, but the development of the launcher was impacted by the failures of VV15 and VV17 and, above all, by the COVID pandemic. The delays, postponing the inaugural flight of the VEGA-C to the first quarter of 2022, with a correspondingly tight launch schedule in 2022, made the launch period of CSG-2 incompatible with the needs of the COSMO mission. As the Arianespace backlog is already complete on the Soyuz and Ariane systems in 2021, it was not possible to have a European backup solution Compliant with the CSG-2 schedule, an alternative solution with the American supplier SPACE X was therefore adopted, making it possible to maintain the launch of CSG-2 in the current year. In line with its long-standing support for the European launch industry, ASI has confirmed its confidence in the capabilities of Arianespace and VEGA-C by contracting the launch of the CSG-3 satellite, scheduled for 2024. In addition, other future launch opportunities for ASI missions with VEGA-C are in the pipeline. discussion, confirming Arianespace as a key partner for the Agency.

Italian Space Agency (ASI) – September 2021

Weighing approximately 2.2 tonnes (~ 4,900 lb), SkyMed CSG-2 is the second of four Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites designed to “[observe] Earth from space, meter by meter, day or night, regardless of weather conditions, to help predict landslides and flooding, coordinate earthquake relief efforts or fire, [and] check crisis areas. Mainly centered on the Mediterranean, the nature of Sun-synchronous orbits (SSO) nevertheless gives SkyMed satellites daily views of most of the Earth’s surface.

SkyMed CSG-1 debuted on an Arianespace Soyuz rocket in December 2019, while CSG-2 was originally scheduled to launch in 2021 on one of the first Arianespace Vega-C rockets. However, in July 2019 and November 2020, the Vega Vega-C rocket suffered two launch failures separated by a single success. In addition to raising major questions about Arianespace’s quality assurance, these consecutive failures also delayed Vega’s launch manifesto by three years. Combined with a laborious launch cadence and a busy manifesto for Arianespace’s other non-Vega rockets, this meant Italy would likely have had to wait 1-2 years to launch SkyMed CSG-2 on a European rocket.

Apparently appreciating a timely and affordable launch more than the route of least political resistance, the Italian Space Agency has chosen to remodel the second SkyMed satellite on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket scheduled for launch no earlier than November 2021. However, Based on ASI’s explanation of the move in the quote above, the space agency clearly felt the need to very explain his decision carefully while signaling on several occasions (almost with fear) his unwavering “confidence” in a dedication to the “key partner” Arianespace.

Unfortunately, although there is a small chance that Italy’s brief taste of freedom outside of ESA’s clutches and Arianespace’s political grasp may encourage EU members to back down and move away. Fighting for access to cheaper, more reliable launches, it seems much more likely that SkyMed CSG -2 will be a rare outlier for years to come.

SpaceX lands launch contract with Arianespace after Vega rocket fails twice

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Travis Durham

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