Social media is awash right now with “decade challenges” — photos of decade-beginning and decade-ending self portraits to mark the change, for better or worse, that can happen to an individual over 10 years. For Arianespace, the Twitter photo montage would, for 2010, consist of a Kourou-based Ariane 5 flanking a Baikonur-based Soyuz; the 2020 photo would show a much larger family — an Ariane 5, an Ariane 6, a Vega, a Vega C, and a Soyuz. It is exciting to imagine what the 2030 Twitter post would look like given the exceptionally revolutionary spirit we’ve witnessed sweep through the space industry over the last ten years.
Just a decade ago, heavy lift vehicles and geostationary payloads were the bread and butter of the industry. At the time, we could expect as many as 25 orders for large satellites each year. Then the landscape changed. Some of the mainstays of the launch industry collapsed or barely hung on for life while new, low cost challengers emerged from a position of great strength due to steady institutional support. Large geostationary satellites, leveraging technological advances and gains in efficiency and power, became cheaper to operate, making the cost-per-bit plummet. Launch costs dropped by half or more, while geostationary satellite orders fell to a dozen a year.
Sensing a change in the air less than halfway through the decade, Arianespace began to chart a course that sought to anticipate the forces transforming both the launch services and satellite markets. Through our experience with both Globalstar and O3b, we quickly grasped that constellations of smaller payloads were likely going to be a significant part of the future for our industry. In 2012, we launched the light-lift Vega just in time to meet the needs of the new small satellite industry, giving it a dedicated commercial launch vehicle for polar and sun synchronous missions. In the meantime, we received the greenlight from the European Space Agency (ESA) to design and build the Ariane 6, a modular heavy-lift replacement for the Ariane 5 that would deeply slash launch costs. In parallel, we began to work towards the introduction of the Vega C, which will have greater carrying capacity than its predecessor, the Vega. Both the Vega C and Ariane 6 are going to be outfitted with payload adapters that can accommodate multiple payloads for rideshare and constellation missions to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) —SSMS and MLS, Geostationary Orbit (GEO) — GO-1, and even lunar orbits in the case of the Ariane 6.
In addition to slight gains in traditional missions to GEO, we are seeing a proliferation in satellites whose destination is Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) or polar orbits. Whether the application is Earth Observation (EO), meteorology, or connectivity, there seems to be a strong financial vote of confidence for these systems that may continue unabated. The momentum is definitely there, for now.
Also dynamic is the prospect of lunar exploration. Space-faring nations of the world are organizing themselves around the goal of returning to the moon, this time as a team, and this time to stay. Between the modules that will orbit the moon, the landers that will initially conduct exploration, and the astronauts who will take up temporary residence on the lunar surface, our launch vehicles, most notably the Ariane 6, will have a huge role to play. We are even hopeful that the Ariane 6 can evolve to the point of being human rated and join the select club of vehicles that has been able to deliver people to orbit and to the moon. It appears like a bit of a dream today, but one never knows the promises of the future.
By 2030, the “digital divide” will be a thing of the past. But getting to that point, that is by populating Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) with 10s of thousands of small satellites, could indelibly and irreparably harm the space industry. If the work is not carried out responsibly, we could be looking at a wasteland of orbital debris that could pose a risk to launch vehicles and satellites, and potentially human beings. This is why we believe in constellations which will remain compatible with a sustainable space. Because the industry is progressing faster than the pace of regulation, the onus for responsibility rests upon the corporations designing and operating spacecraft and launch vehicles. As the company that is launching the James Webb Space Telescope in 2021, our hope is that astronomy, among other things, only gets better on account of our launch activities.
As Arianespace begins 2020 — its 40th anniversary — marking 40 years of delivering the future, we bring to customers the accumulated wisdom and experience of many decades of launching nearly every platform to every orbit, responsibly. But more than that, we are eager to offer, and share in, the hope of the great promise of space-based industries, human spaceflight, and planetary exploration. The comparison photo we post in 2030 on social media is likely to show a much better world because of spaceflight. VS