Europe braces for competition from low-cost U.S. satellite launcher


Space Exploration Technologies is not among the 2,200 companies exhibiting at the Paris Airshow, but its cut-rate Falcon rocket, which has already shaken up the U.S. satellite launch industry, is raising eyebrows in Europe.

The privately owned, California-based firm, known as SpaceX, is preparing for the first of about 30 satellite launches, aiming to reverse a long decline in the U.S. commercial launch business.

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U.S. companies had a monopoly in the field 30 years ago, but no longer. The low point came in 2011, when not a single satellite operator besides the U.S. government chose a U.S. company for a ride to space.

The business has largely been going to France-based Arianespace, a public-private European partnership that last year reported revenue of 1.3 billion euros. The company is projected to bring in nearly that much again this year, its newly appointed chief executive, Stephane Israel, told reporters at the biennial air show.

SpaceX is not Arianespace's only competition. Russia markets a variety of rockets for space launches, and to some extent so do India and China, although U.S. export restrictions have severely impacted China's ability to sell its services.

But it is SpaceX's impeding entry into the commercial launch business that is triggering a makeover in how Arianespace builds rockets and conducts its business.

For starters, Arianespace next year plans to debut a series of modifications to its flagship Ariane 5 rocket to boost lift capacity, put multiple satellites into orbit with a single launch, increase flexibility and cut costs.

By around 2020, the company wants to be flying an entirely new Ariane 6 rocket with the goal of cutting launch costs to about 75 million euros - a 40 to 50 percent decrease over current costs, said Alain Charmeau, chairman of the EADS subsidiary Astrium, Arianespace's prime contractor.

"The key question for Ariane 6 is not really the design of the booster. The key question is how to organize the industry and the relationship between agencies and industries in order to deliver a launcher to a given target price. And we have never done that before in Europe," said Israel, speaking through a translator.

While SpaceX may be the public face of change in the U.S. launch business, Israel credits a shift at the U.S. space agency NASA with triggering the transition.

Following the retirement of its space shuttles in 2011, NASA decided to forego development of spaceships to transport astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. Instead, it opted to procure the necessary flight services on a commercial basis.

NASA provided seed money and technical advice for SpaceX and other firms to develop rockets and capsules, but left design decisions up to the companies. SpaceX already is flying its Falcon rockets and Dragon cargo capsules to the space station, a $100 billion research outpost about 250 miles above Earth.

A cargo ship is also being built by Orbital Sciences Corp and is scheduled for a test flight to the station in September.

"The disadvantage of Europe is always the same - we have a very, very limited institutional market compared to Russia, China, the U.S., and even India in the future. We can only exist if we are competitive on the commercial market," Israel said.

(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by John Wallace)