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Thursday, 9 December, 1999, 13:19 GMT
The roaring business of rockets
Ariane 5: Hoping for a bright future
Ariane 5: Hoping for a bright future
By BBC News Online's Damian Carrington in Kourou, French Guiana

The first commercial launch of Ariane 5, planned for Friday, will be a crucial milestone in the satellite launch business.

If successful, Arianespace's new heavy-launch rocket will give a much-needed boost to the industry - if not investors' confidence will seep away further.

A success will also help fade the bitter memory of the explosion of the first Ariane 5 in 1996.

Although Arianespace has since achieved two further experimental launches, another perfect show is required if the company wants to extend its dominance of the commercial market for satellite launches.
Ariane 5's first commercial payload is the XMM X-ray observatory
There is no doubt 1999 has been a difficult year. American, Russian and Japanese satellite launches have all exploded, crashed or failed to launch, wasting many billions of dollars.

But while the appetite for satellite television and communications becomes more voracious and more profitable, bigger and bigger satellites must be launched into space.

High orbits

In 1998, satellite launches produced revenues of $100bn, but some estimates suggest the sector will be worth tens of trillions of dollars by 2020.

After reliability, the key to the success for Arianespace and its competitors is the weight that can be carried. The TV and communications satellites must be lifted into a high, geostationary orbit, 36,000 kilometres (22,300 miles) above the Earth. Here they move at the same rate as the planet turns, remaining over the same spot on the Earth and within view of the fixed satellite dishes.

Ariane 5 can carry up to 6,800kg (15,000 lbs) into these high orbits, 50% more than the current workhorse, Ariane 4, and more than any other commercial vehicle capable of all missions.

Lockheed Martin's Atlas V rocket will be able to lift 8,600 kg into geostationary orbit, but the vehicle has yet to make its debut. Further in the future, Arianespace plans to improve their rocket to carry 12,000kg.

Despite the difficulties the industry has faced in 1999, Phillip Balaam of Arianespace was upbeat at a recent conference: "In the US market, it doesn't matter how many satellites they launch, they always fill them up. Demand tends to follow supply."

Internet growth

In Europe, he said: "Virtually all the satellites are full and this is a trend we see continuing in the near future."

However, the Asia-Pacific market remains difficult, he added. Confidence and finance for satellite projects is returning, but the pace is slow. "Thank God there is India and Japan. They are the driving force behind demand in the region at the moment."

Sea Launch uses a readapted oil rig
The internet could drive growth believe analysts like Rachel Villain, at the Euroconsult space consultancy, particularly in the Asia-Pacific market. "Here we see a tripling of the number of satellites to be launched in the next decade," she said.

Arianespace currently claims over half the world market share in commercial (not military) launches. Lockheed Martin and Boeing are Arianespace's main competitors, according to the European company's spokesman, although Boeing's Delta rockets have suffered launch problems this year.

There are new ventures such as the daring Sea Launch platform, an oil rig redesigned as a launch pad, which floats near the equator. But some doubts have been expressed over how frequently this system can send rockets into space.

Old missiles

Russia has a frequently-used rocket in the Proton, but two explosions in 1999 have dented its previously good safety record. It is also starting use old ballistic missiles decommissioned at the end of the Cold War.
The Russian Dnepr-1 is a converted intercontinental ballistic missile
The Russian Dnepr-1 is a converted intercontinental ballistic missile
And India and China have achieved successful launches, but only of small satellites.

Japan's satellite launch business appears in tatters currently after the H-2 rocket was cancelled.

The lower orbit market, where satellites are used mainly for global mobile telephone and data services has had a very turbulent last 18 months. After launching more than 70 satellites into orbit, the satellite phone company Iridium filed for bankruptcy.

Another company, ICO Global Communications, went bankrupt the same month and a third company, Globalstar, does not have its telephones ready yet.

A successful launch for Ariane 5 will bring great cheer to everyone in the business of launching satellites.

How the rocket business divides up

See also:

11 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
Sea launch heralds new space era
15 Nov 99 | Sci/Tech
Japan's rocket hopes explode
07 May 99 | Sci/Tech
Russian missiles start new life
06 May 99 | Sci/Tech
US space rockets grounded
10 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
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