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Has SpaceX become unbeatable?


Elon Musk's group made 21 launches in 2018, twice as many as Arianespace. If the American champion now seems out of reach, a closer look shows that Europe is not totally dropped.

Where will the rise of SpaceX stop ? After making 8 launches in 2016 and 18 in 2017, Elon Musk's space group completed the year 2018 with 21 launches: 20 shots of Falcon 9, and the inaugural launch of the heavy pitcher Falcon Heavy. The icing on the cake, SpaceX has recovered eleven times (su twelve attempts) the first floor of its launcher, on a barge or on land, and made half of its launches with floors already used in previous missions. According to the Wall Street Journal , on the basis of the last fundraising in December, the group would now be valued at $ 30.4 billion. That's 9 billion more than mid-2017 ...

With this record year, SpaceX is further increasing its lead over Arianespace . The European group launched two times less than its rival in 2018: it made eleven launches last year (six of Ariane 5, three of Soyuz and two of Vega), a stable figure compared to 2017. Certainly, the ArianeGroup subsidiary remains a solid number two worldwide, unlike a Russian rival Proton in total collapse (2 launches). But the European launch company no longer seems able to keep up with the infernal pace imposed by its California rival, which has tripled its rate of fire since 2015.

If you look closely, the gap is still nuance. Arianespace has thus fared very well in the launch segment to the geostationary orbit (36,000km), the preferred orbit for large telecom satellites. Ariane 5 launched eight satellites in this orbit in 2018, as much as SpaceX. According to our calculations, the American group is ahead of its rival on the total mass of satellites placed in this geostationary orbit: 42.4 tons for SpaceX, against 36.9 tons for Arianespace. The European group, once is not custom, is also almost equal with SpaceX on institutional launches: 6 for SpaceX in 2018, 5 for Arianespace. It is in the segment of low-orbit launches (less than 2,000 km) that SpaceX is widening the gap, with 10 launches against 5 at Arianespace.

Fast pace

Should Arianespace mourn the world's number one place it has long occupied? It's possible. Even at full speed, the future Ariane 6 launcher, whose first flight is scheduled for 2020, will not exceed 11 to 12 launches per year. That's twice as much as the current pace of Ariane 5, but not enough to keep pace with SpaceX. Two years ago, it projected about fifty launches by 2019. It will not, but the recent past shows that SpaceX always ends up achieving its goals.

It must be said that Elon Musk's group can count on assets that space Europe does not have: a real American national preference for launching institutional satellites; serving missions of the International Space Station (ISS) on behalf of NASA, with Dragon capsules; and a gigantic US military market, SpaceX is conquering. The group thus launched last year a secret military charge of the Pentagon, named Zuma , which seems to have been placed in a bad orbit. It also launched in orbit in December the first GPS satellite of new generation, said GPS III.

Dumping of SpaceX?

SpaceX can also afford the luxury of charging its institutional launches more expensive than its commercial shootings. On its website, SpaceX offers commercial customers Falcon 9 to $ 62 million. The US Air Force is paying $ 96.5 million for the launch of a GPS satellite in 2019 ... 55% more. Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly denounced this dumping last December: "Some competitors seek to attract Europeans by offering low prices, very low because they charge their own institutions at a high price, very strong," she denounced. Let's not be complicit in this little game, not very loyal, which in reality aims to make us lose our autonomy of access to space"The Minister of Armies was demanding a Buy European Act to support Ariane 6. A principle that the European Commission, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Member States are reluctant to act , despite the urgent demand of the industry.

One thing is certain: SpaceX looks set to continue its momentum. Its first launch of the year, the last 10 satellites of the telecom satellite constellation Iridium NEXT, is scheduled for January 8. The first launch of a prototype of the inhabited capsule Crew Dragon is expected from January 17, before a second mid-year. Two shots of the overpowering Falcon Heavy rocket, which had sent a Tesla roadster into orbit in February 2018 during its maiden flight, are also planned for this year.