SpaceX snags launch contract from Arianespace after Vega rocket fails twice

SpaceX launch Arianespace Vega

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

After spending the better part of a decade with its head in the sand as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket rapidly came to dominate the global launch market, Arianespace has become increasingly reliant on its ability to entice politicians into forcing European Union member states to launch any and all domestic satellites and spacecraft on its Ariane 5, Ariane 6, and Vega rockets. Save for a few halting, lethargic technology development programs that have yet to bear any actionable fruit, the company – heavily subsidized by European governments – has almost completely failed to approach head-on the threat posed by SpaceX by prioritizing the development of rockets that can actually compete with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy on cost and performance.

Instead, over the last five or so years, Arianespace has increasingly thrown its political weight around in an effort to legally force countries in the European Union to launch on far more expensive Ariane rockets.

A recent development offers the best look yet at what many European space agencies likely suffer through as a consequence of their governments signing away access to an increasingly competitive launch industry – often seemingly in return for Arianespace selecting contractors or (re)locating development hubs or factories in certain countries. Notably, sometime 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.

Weighing around 2.2 tons (~4900 lb), SkyMed CSG-2 is the second of four synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites designed to “[observe] Earth from space, meter by meter, day and night, in any weather conditions, to help predict landslides and floods, coordinate relief efforts in case of earthquakes or fires, [and] check crisis areas.” Primarily focused on the Mediterranean, the nature of sun-synchronous orbits (SSOs) nevertheless give SkyMed satellites views of most of the Earth’s surface every day.

SkyMed CSG-1 debuted on an Arianespace Soyuz rocket in December 2019, while CSG-2 was originally scheduled to launch sometime in 2021 on one of the first Arianespace Vega-C rockets. However, in July 2019 and November 2020, the Vega rocket Vega-C is based on suffered two launch failures separated by just a single success. Aside from raising major questions about Arianespace’s quality assurance, those near-back-to-back failures also delayed Vega’s launch manifest by three years. Combined with a plodding launch cadence and jam-packed manifest for Arianespace’s other non-Vega rockets, that meant that Italy would have likely had to wait 1-2 years to launch SkyMed CSG-2 on a European rocket.

Apparently valuing a timely, affordable launch more than the path of least political resistance, the Italian Space Agency chose to remanifest the second SkyMed satellite on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket scheduled to launch no earlier than November 2021. However, based on ASI’s explanation of the move in the quote above, the space agency clearly felt a need to very carefully explain its decision while also repeatedly (almost fearfully so) signaling its unwavering “trust” in an dedication to “key partner” Arianespace.

Unfortunately, while there might be a small chance that Italy’s brief taste of freedom outside the clutches of ESA and Arianespace’s political grasp could encourage EU members to push back and fight for access to cheaper, more reliable launches, it looks far more likely that SkyMed CSG-2 will be a rare outlier for years to come.

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