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Europe: Ariane Launch Failure A Setback For Space Operations

The European space program suffered a setback when an upgraded Ariane-5 rocket exploded soon after blastoff from French Guiana yesterday. The leading position of the European Arianespace company as a satellite launcher may now be in jeopardy, as U.S. enterprises, in particular, are making new efforts to lift their market shares.

Prague, 12 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- European space officials are dismayed at the failure of the maiden mission of Europe's heavy-lift space rocket, the Ariane-5-ESCA.

The new-generation rocket, capable of lifting a massive 10 tons, malfunctioned yesterday three minutes after takeoff from the European Space Agency's Kourou base in South America.

Two French-built satellites went down with the rocket, one of which, the Stentor, was an experimental communications model designed to test broadband and multimedia transmissions.

First reports indicate problems with the rocket's Vulcain-2 main engine. The aerospace correspondent for "Flight International" magazine, Tim Furness, says the accident is a severe blow to Arianespace. That's the private, Paris-based company that handles satellite launches using rockets developed by the European Space Agency. He says,

"Basically, they have lost two very, very expensive communications satellites, for a start. It is probably one of the most expensive failures, possibly up to $600 million worth of satellites lost."

Not only that, the accident casts doubt on the reliability of the new Ariane-5-ESCA, Arianespace's new tool, which was supposed to give it an advantage amidst sharpening international competition.

Furness says, "It was the first launch of the new heavyweight version of the Ariane-5, which would have made Arianespace the world leaders in capability to launch communication satellites into geostationary orbit."

For future missions -- if it chooses not to use the latest version -- the company has only two of its old, tried-and-tested Ariane-4 rockets remaining. It also has stocks of the earlier version of the Ariane-5, which has a patchy success record. Three of its 14 missions have failed since 1996.

The new heavy-lift version was meant to put Arianespace ahead in the international launch market, which from 1992 to 2001 was worth some $20 billion. Arianespace has a dominant position, with more than 47 percent of the market.

Arianespace's path to the top, which began in the 1980s, was made easier in that the United States at that time dropped the development of new rockets, putting all of its efforts into the Space Shuttle program. American launch companies had to use foreign launch vehicles, like Russia's old but sturdy Proton. But now that is changing.

U.S. firms are about to become more competitive. Boeing has unveiled its new Delta-4 rocket, and Lockheed Martin has introduced the Atlas-5. Both these models compete directly with Ariane-5.

Troubling as yesterday's failure is to Arianespace, experts do not see it necessarily as a decisive blow. Rachel Villan is the vice president for space affairs at the Euroconsult consultancy in Paris.

She says that she believes Arianespace is not really threatened. "Of course," she adds, "there could be one or two customers which transfer and go to another launch vehicle."

But Villan feels that the Ariane program has a proven record -- only 11 of 157 missions have failed -- and that it will weather the current storm. The real damage, she says, is to the insurance industry, which will be hard-put to find the money.

"The big problem is with the insurance companies because there has been another big failure of another big satellite 10 days ago, on a [Russian] Proton launch vehicle."

In that accident, the Proton rocket launched a five-ton communications satellite, the largest of its kind, into a useless orbit. The French-made satellite was later deliberately crashed into the Pacific Ocean.