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Arianespace takes on SpaceX and Rocket Lab in satellite rideshare business

In what’s turning out to be an unusually busy period for rocket launches, Arianespace on Wednesday, September 2, launched a Vega rocket carrying 53 microsatellites, nanosatellites, and CubeSats in its debut rideshare mission for lightweight satellites.

The mission got underway at the European Space Agency’s Spaceport in French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America at 6:52 p.m. PT (10:52 p.m. local time).

The mission had suffered a series of delays since March due to adverse weather conditions and disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But the launch was finally given the green light on Wednesday night.

The 53 satellites belong to 21 companies from 13 countries and will be used for various operations related to Earth observation, telecommunications, science, technology, and education.

The mission saw the first use of a new dispenser called the Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS) that’s capable of deploying multiple satellites at once. The SSMS dispenser comprises a lower hexagonal section for as many as six nanosatellites or up to a dozen CubeSat deployers, and an upper section for microsatellites, minisatellites, and small satellites. It was developed by Italian aerospace firm Avio in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) and is produced by Czech firm SAB Aerospace.

Arianespace and rideshare missions

French firm Arianespace was founded in 1980 as the world’s first commercial launch provider and since then has deployed some 700 satellites in orbit, around 200 of them in the last three years alone.

Up to now, Arianespace customers wishing to deploy smaller satellites have had to rely on spare capacity to allow them to ride “piggyback” with a primary satellite, but the waiting time for such opportunities could be long. The smallsat ridesharing model deals with this.

By entering this lucrative and fast-expanding business — where multiple satellites are launched at once for multiple companies, resulting in reduced costs — Arianespace will be competing with SpaceX and Rocket Lab, among others.

SpaceX began taking rideshare applications earlier this year, with prices for small-satellite deployment starting at $1 million — a fraction of the tens of millions of dollars ordinarily charged for the booking of an entire launch. Its first rideshare mission took place in June. Rocket Lab, on the other hand, achieved its latest launch earlier this week and has plans to ramp up the frequency of its missions.

With its European connections, Arianespace hopes to attract business from companies in the region looking to deploy small satellites in space.

ESA’s Renato Lafranconi said Wednesday’s mission “heralds a new era in rideshare opportunities for small satellites and shows our commitment to extending Europe’s access to space capabilities to serve European institutions, strengthen our space industry, and grow our economy.”

Arianespace is currently working on the Vegas C, a more powerful version of the original Vega rocket that will provide even better cost competitiveness for customers when it goes into service in the next couple of years.

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