As technicians make final preparations for the third test flight of the United States space shuttle Columbia later this month, Europe is beginning to compete strongly for a share of the lucrative satellite launching business.
Last week Arianespace announced the signing of a $50 million contract to orbit a communications satellite for Canada by 1986. Arianespace is the company that eventually will manage commercial launching business for the 12-nation European Space Agency (ESA).
Some 14 missions are already scheduled for ESA's Ariane launching vehicle over the next three years. They include a few payloads double-booked with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) -- a practice some customers follow to ensure their satellites are launched on time. They also include payloads won away from NASA, such as a General Telephone-GTE G-star and the Southern Pacific Corporation Spacenet communications satellites.
Signing of the Canadian contract follows the announcement by ESA, on Jan. 25, that its Ariane launching vehicle can be certified to be ''qualified and thus fully operational'' after the success of three of four test flights. This is at a time when the US shuttle is far from similar certification.
At its meeting Jan. 25 and 26, ESA also decided to go ahead with development of a new Ariane launcher -- Ariane 4. It is to be powerful enough to boost satellites of 4.3 metric-ton (9,479 pounds) mass into geosynchronous orbit. That's twice the mass that the present Ariane can put into this important orbit.
Geosynchronous orbit means that the satellite moves around its orbit at the same rate at which the Earth turns. Hence it remains over a given spot on the planet's surface. This makes it the preferred orbit for many communications and weather observing satellites.
ESA has already taken other steps to enhance its commercial launch capabilities. In 1980, even before the present Ariane was well into its test series, ESA authorized minor changes that will boost the system's launching power. These enhanced launchers -- Ariane 2 and 3 -- are expected to be flying next year. Also, last year, ESA decided to build a second Ariane launch site to increase its ability to fulfill launch commitments and to allow more launches in a given time.
Thus it is that those ESA members participating in the Ariane project are well positioned to challenge the US space shuttle. Only 10 of the 12 members take part -- Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Britain. Associate members Ireland and Norway do not.
NASA, which already is feeling the competition, is considering easing some of its commercial terms - such as the requirement that customers decide whether to use the shuttle or a Delta launching rocket 30 months before launch date. It may also have to modify its price structure. Right now, Delta launches are the only type of launches for which customers must pay full cost.
Both shuttle and Ariane launches are being subsidized to attract business over the next few years. However, the shuttle is handicapped by uncertainties both as to when it will be operational and to what extent it will be able to meet commercial commitments. Budget cuts have already forced NASA to reduce the shuttle schedule from the 48 missions originally planned through mid-1985 to 32 flights.
For its part, ESA will ease into commercial operation. It calls its first seven launches a ''promotional series.'' Three are scheduled this year, beginning in late April, and four next year. Then commercial responsibility will be handed over fully to Arianespace, which is a private company. Meanwhile, the powerful Ariane 4 is expected to be demonstrated in 1985 and to become operational in 1986.
ESA is thinking in terms of cooperation, as well as competition, with the US. It is involved in the shuttle program by supplying Spacelab -- a laboratory that goes in the shuttle equipment bay and in which technicians can work. Both it and the US talk hopefully of further cooperative projects in space exploration that will share the costs of the research.
However, ESA has been badly burned when the US has unilaterally withdrawn or reduced its participation in such joint projects in the past. The most serious of such actions was cancellation of the US spacecraft in the Solar Polar Mission to send twin spacecraft to explore the north and south polar regions of the sun.
Thus, in spite of some friction in the past, ESA is inclined to seek continued US cooperation. But ESA officials are making it clear they expect to be treated with equal respect in any future joint projects.