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SpaceX strikes second GPS satellite launch deal in a year, killing the competition

, March 16, 2017, 0 Comments

gps-spacex-elon-musk-marketexpress-inElon Musk’s SpaceX has been awarded a second contract to launch a GPS navigation satellite for the US Air Force. SpaceX is killing the competition on price.

The American space industry moves at a rapid pace – far faster, it seems, than Europe’s does.
In the same 24-to-48-hour window that Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched EchoStar XXIII, a commercial communications satellite, into orbit, it was also announced that the company had scored its second military deal to launch a GPS satellite.

It was only ten days ago that Blue Origin said it had secured its first customer, France’s Eutelsat Communications SA. Blue Origin is owned by Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos. Both Bezos and Musk have designs on commercial space travel, reusable rockets, and more generally, a future for humanity “off planet.”

They are part of a pack of US entrepreneurs who are offering space services at much lower costs than the incumbents.

When the US Air Force awarded SpaceX its first GPS launch contract it was worth $83 million (77 million euros). That, said the military, was 40 percent cheaper than what it had paid United Launch Alliance (ULA) for previous missions.

ULA is a partnership between two truly old hands in the industry, Lockheed Martin and Boeing. They didn’t bid for that first contract in April 2016. But losing out on the second contract less than a year later must feel like a blow. At the very least it’s an indication of how power is shifting in the US space industries.

There are a host of relatively young commercial companies on the scene, all vying for the same business.

So SpaceX’s new deal to launch a GPS 3 navigation satellite in 2019 is worth $96.5 million. And it’s also under government contract to send supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). But it has a rival there in Orbital ATK, another American upstart, which plans to launch its seventh resupply mission to the ISS on March 24.

Keeping up the pace

But it’s no just the dollar signs or the number of new actors that make the US space industry so spicy – it’s also about the rate at which they launch. That rate is increasing by the year.

In 2016, SpaceX managed a mix of eight commercial and government-contract missions. The year before, it had six successful missions. So there’s a clear escalation. And it intends to keep up the pace, having recently started launching from NASA’s refurbished – and historical – 39A launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida. SpaceX has a “backlog” of about 40 missions to get through.

How that compares to Europe

Europe, meanwhile, is holding on for now.

The Guiana Space Center at Kourou in French Guiana is Europe’s spaceport. It is run by the French Space Agency (CNES) and Arianespace. It boasts an average of 12 launches per year.

On March 6, Arianespace launched the EU’s Sentinel-2B Earth observation satellite. It’s preparing for its next launch on March 21, when an Ariane 5 rocket will transport the SGDC and Koreasat 7 communications satellites into orbit.

Arianespace is a multinational, European launch service provider. Owned in part by CNES, Arianespace caters to most of Europe’s launch needs. Unlike SpaceX, Arianespace doesn’t design its own rockets (although strictly speaking it produces and operates them for launches). But it’s commercial all the same. So it can pick and choose its customers.

And what’s interesting there is how space customers – the companies or governments that commission satellite and other launches – move around.

In June 2016, Arianespace launched the EchoStar XVIII satellite. Now, as we know, EchoStar has launched with SpaceX, and there’s another EchoStar launch on SpaceX’s slate later this year. Arianespace has also launched missions for Eutelsat, but they have just signed with Blue Origin.

So the question is how will Europe keep up with America’s younger breed?