Three’s Company – Commercial Launch Contracts

Return of ILS Threatens ArianeSpace, SpaceX Duopoly

The commercial launch market in 2015 illustrated the continued duopoly of Europe’s Arianespace and SpaceX of the United States that was evident in 2014, with the added feature of signs of a return to market graces of International Launch Services, the Reston, Virginia-based company that markets Russia’s Proton rocket.

ILS owner Khrunichev Space Center of Moscow has made clear it will correct the Proton quality-control issues of recent years and, if needed, cut prices to win back customers. ILS’s multi-launch agreements with Intelsat and Eutelsat as yet include no firm satellite commitments but nonetheless represent statements by two of the world’s three biggest commercial fleet operators that they are determined to maintain three viable launch sources.

The tally presented here is satellites whose launches were, in principle, open to competition – a subject of wide disagreement in an industry already challenged to distinguish between “commercial” and “noncommercial.”

For example, SpaceNews does not include Arianespace’s two geostationary satellite launch awards from Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization. Eumetsat says it is free to select whatever launcher it wishes and it has resisted pressure from European governments to commit to a “European preference.”

But the fact is that Eumetsat is about as loyal an Ariane rocket customer as can be found anywhere, and it’s doubtful whether an Ariane competitor would invest much in a formal bid.

As small satellites have become more prominent in the commercial world, commercial launches to orbits other than geostationary orbit have proliferated. This year’s contract count includes SpaceX wins of Canada’s Radarsat Constellation Mission aboard a single SpaceX Falcon 9; and Spaceflight Industries’ booking of a Falcon 9 for dozens of small satellites riding aboard a Spaceflight tug.

Arianespace booked another four-satellite order from O3b Networks, aboard a Europeanized Soyuz rocket to medium- Earth orbit; and contracts from the Peruvian government and Skybox Imaging of the United States, owned by Google, who will share a single Vega launch.

The biggest contract of the year was OneWeb LLC’s booking of 21 Soyuz launches from Arianespace, a contract that Arianespace calls as firm as any other despite the fact that OneWeb and its satellite production partner, Airbus Defence and Space, have not built the first of the planned 700-plus OneWeb spacecraft.

The government of the United Arab Emirates booked two Arianespace Vega launches, each carrying one Falcon Eye optical reconnaissance satellite.

As SpaceX and Arianespace will tell you, the quality of a launch contract is not strained, but falls onto the launch provider’s order books in the same way — whatever the orbit.

China’s case has always been more complicated because U.S. technology-transfer restrictions mean China cannot launch a satellite with U.S.-made parts. That has kept China out of most of the global commercial launch market except in those cases where China also sells a satellite to the same customer.


Arianespace said it booked a commercial contract with one additional geostationary-satellite customer, whose identity was not disclosed. But Eutelsat had confirmed it had exercised an earlier option for an Ariane 5 launch.

In addition to these GEO-satellite contracts, Arianespace contracted for one Europeanized Russian Soyuz launch of four O3b Networks medium-Earth-orbit high-throughput satellites.

In low Earth orbit, Arianespace booked orders for Vega small-satelilte launches for the Falcon Eye 1 and Falcon Eye 2 optical reconnaissance satellites from the United Arab Emirates; one PeruSat-1 Earth observation satellite; and one launch of four Skybox Imaging Earth observation satellites.

Arianespace also signed what was billed as the biggest-ever commercial launch contract, valued at around $1.2 billion, for 21 Soyuz launches of OneWeb LLC low-orbiting Ku-band broadband satellites. Arianespace and OneWeb have characterized the contract as firm, but OneWeb and its satellite builder, Airbus, have yet to formalize a satellite construction contract or the creation of a U.S.-based satellite manufacturing facility.

SpaceX_logoSpaceX said it had booked a contract with an undisclosed commercial customer in 2015. Industry officials said it is with Eutelsat, for either the Eutelsat Quantum or some other satellite. Eutelsat declined to comment.

In addition to these geostationary-orbit satellites, SpaceX booked two commercial orders for low-orbiting payloads: one with Spaceflight Industries for the launch of a structure carrying dozens of cubesats; and one with the Canadian government for the launch three Radarsat Constellation Mission radar Earth observation satellites.

ILS_logo.svg200In a vote of confidence in ILS, whose Russian Proton rocket has suffered a string of failures, Intelsat and Eutelsat concluded two multi-launch agreements with ILS for a total of 11 missions, which will be counted as firm orders as they move to firm contract status and the satellites are identified.


Commercial launch contracts signed in 2015 for telecommunications satellites bound for geostationary orbit

SatelliteOwnerLaunch Provider
Arsat-3Arsat/Argentina governmentArianespace
Azerspace-2/Intelsat 38Azerbaijan governmentArianespace
BSAT-4aB-Sat JapanArianespace
EDRS-C/Hylas 3Airbus Defence and Space/Avanti CommunicationArianespace
Geo-Kompsat-2AKorea Aerospace Research InstituteArianespace
Geo-Kompsat-2BKorea Aerospace Research InstituteArianespace
GSAT 17Indian Space Research OrganisationArianespace
GSAT 18Indian Space Research OrganisationArianespace
Hispasat 1FHispasatILS
Amazonas 5HispasatSpaceX
Arabsat 6AArabsatSpaceX
Telstar 18 Vantage/Apstar-5CTelesat and APT SatelliteSpaceX
Telstar 19VTelesatSpaceX
Chinasat 6CChinasatChina Great Wall Industry Corp.
Apstar 6CAPTSatelliteChina Great Wall Industry Corp.
Chinasat 18ChinasatChina Great Wall Industry Corp.