SpaceX has won a contract to launch an Italian Earth observation satellite from European launch monopoly and political heavyweight Arianespace, a rare win for international launch competition.
After burying its head in the sand for the better part of a decade as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket grew to dominate the global launch market, Arianespace has become increasingly reliant on its ability to entice politicians into compelling European Union member states to launch any and all domestic satellites and spacecraft on its Ariane 5, Ariane 6, and Vega rockets. Except for a few halting, lethargic technology development programs that have yet to bear fruit, the company – heavily subsidized by European governments – has almost entirely failed to confront SpaceX head on by prioritizing the development of rockets that can compete on cost and performance with the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.
Rather than that, over the past five years or so, Arianespace has increased its political leverage in an attempt to legally compel nations in the European Union to launch on the much more costly Ariane rockets.
Recently, a development has provided the best glimpse yet into the difficulties that many European space agencies are likely to face as a result of their governments agreeing to grant Arianespace access to an increasingly competitive launch industry – often in exchange for Arianespace selecting contractors or (re)locating development hubs or factories in specific countries. However, the Italian Space Agency (ASI) announced in September 2021 that it was shifting the launch of its COSMO SkyMed CSG-2 Earth observation satellite from a new Arianespace rocket to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which is scheduled to fly in September 2022.
“The second COSMO SkyMed Second Generation satellite (CSG-2) was planned to be launched with VEGA-C within 2021, but the launcher development has been impacted by the VV15 and VV17 failures and, above all, by the COVID pandemic. The delays, postponing the VEGA-C Maiden Flight to Q1 2022, with a consequent tight schedule of launches in 2022, made the launch period of CSG-2 no longer compatible with the needs of the COSMO Mission. Since Arianespace backlog was already full on Soyuz and Ariane systems in 2021, it was not possible to have a European backup solution compliant with the CSG-2 schedule, thus an alternative solution with the US provider SPACE X has been adopted allowing to keep the CSG-2 launch within the current year. In line with its long-lasting support ensured to the European launch industry, ASI confirmed its trust in Arianespace and VEGA-C capabilities by contracting the launch of the CSG-3 satellite, planned for 2024. Moreover, other future launch opportunities for ASI missions with VEGA-C are under discussion, confirming Arianespace as a key partner for the Agency.“
SkyMed CSG-2, which weighs approximately 2.2 tons (4900 lb), 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 the event of earthquakes or fires, [and] check crisis areas.” SkyMed CSG-2 is the second of four SAR satellites designed to “[observe] Earth Despite the fact that SkyMed satellites are primarily focused on the Mediterranean, the nature of sun-synchronous orbits (SSOs) allows them to see the majority of the Earth’s surface on a daily basis.
SkyMed CSG-1 made its debut in December 2019 on an Arianespace Soyuz rocket, while CSG-2 was initially planned to launch sometime in 2021 on one of the first Arianespace Vega-C rockets. However, the Vega rocket on which the Vega-C is based had two launch failures between July 2019 and November 2020, separated by just one successful launch in between. Aside from raising serious concerns about Arianespace’s quality assurance procedures, the near-back-to-back failures also added three years to the launch schedule for the Vega spacecraft. If this had been combined with the slow launch schedule and overcrowded manifest for Arianespace’s non-Vega rockets, Italy would have had to wait at least 1-2 years for the launch of SkyMed CSG-2 on a European rocket.
— Kyle Henry (@kyle_LTS) January 9, 2020
Italy’s space agency has chosen to remanifest the second SkyMed satellite on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which is planned to launch no sooner than November 2021, despite the fact that it would have been easier to choose the route of least political opposition. In the statement above, however, the space agency obviously felt a need to thoroughly justify its choice while simultaneously constantly (and almost nervously) expressing its unshakable “confidence” in and commitment to “important partner” Arianespace.
Unfortunately, while there is a small chance that Italy’s brief taste of political independence from the clutches of the European Space Agency and Arianespace will spur other EU members to push back and fight for access to cheaper, more reliable launches in the future, it appears far more likely that SkyMed CSG-2 will remain a rare outlier for years to come if the current trend continues.