The French-led Arianespace commercial satellite launching system has burst forth this year as a major competitor of the United States space shuttle. Ariane, Europe's most advanced space rocket, had its first major victory in the US market in May, successfully putting in orbit a telecommunications satellite for the American GTE Spacenet Corporation. Spacenet officials now say they plan to commission Ariane to send up two more satellites during the next eight months.
The Ariane commercial satellite program, originally funded by the governments of France, West Germany, Britain, and Switzerland through the intermediary of the European Space Agency, is now maintained by Arianespace Inc., the world's first privately owned space exploration company. The venture has been in private hands since March of 1980. It is owned jointly by a group of 36 European aerospace and electronics companies. Arianespace now handles all commercial satellite launchings for the Ariane rocket.
The next launching is planned for Saturday. It will be the first time the new Ariane 3 rocket has been sent into space. Unlike its predecessor, the Ariane 1, Ariane 3 can carry two satellites into orbit on the same trip - as many as the space shuttle has yet carried on a single voyage. At the same time, the newer, larger-model Ariane rocket will carry a European Space Agency satellite as well as Telecom I, the first geostatic telecommunications satellite sent up for the French telephone company.
Four more Ariane 3 rockets will be launched before next March. Each will carry two satellites.
Earlier this year, problems with the US space shuttle's payload assist module (PAM), designed to lift satellites into higher orbit once they are in space, caused the loss of an Indonesian satellite and one belonging to Western Union. On June 9, another satellite was lost, this time launched on an American Atlas-Centaur rocket. Like the shuttle malfunctions, this problem was traced to the PAM. Loss of the Intelsat 5-A June 9 satellite cost insurance companies more than $100 million.
Until problems with the PAM are cleared up, some insurance companies are balking at covering satellites put into orbit by the shuttle. ''The shuttle is a marvelous piece of equipment, but relying on the PAM right now seems to be too big a gamble,'' said Mahomet Dahbi, Aerospace Division chief for the French Fangere & Jutheau insurance group, in a recent interview.
''Given the present situation,'' Mr. Dahbi continued, ''I do not think that I would insure a satellite deployed by the PAM at any price. The ratio of success is clearly in the favor of Ariane.'' Fangere & Jutheau has been insuring against the loss of satellites launched by Ariane for more than a year.
Arianespace has no shortage of customers for the coming years. The company has 28 launch contracts and 18 options for future launchings.Its operations are nearly fully booked up to December 1987. This is nearly $1 billion worth of business over the next three years.
Ariane has not always done so well. Since the operation began in 1973, with 60 percent French funding and the rest provided by a number of other European nations, it has suffered two major setbacks. The first occurred in May 1980 when the rocket's first stage exploded on takeoff. The second was in September 1982, when a third stage misfired and a satellite owned by the European Space Agency failed to achieve proper orbit.
Since then, Ariane spokesmen say, technical bugs have been worked out, and the last four launchings have come off without a hitch.
''Our objective is to provide six to eight launches per year,'' said Arianespace director Frederic d'Allest. ''Twenty new rockets are under construction right now. We are introducing new models, Ariane 3 and Ariane 4, which will allow us to remain technologically competitive until the end of the century.''
Ariane 4 is due to go into service in March of 1986. It will be able to carry four satellites weighing a combined total of 4.2 tons. A second launching pad is also being built at the Ariane Space center in French Guyana, on the northern coast of South America.
It still costs more to send up a satellite with Ariane than by space shuttle: reflect the full cost of the mission.
The cost of launching either Ariane 1 or Ariane 3 is actually an estimated $ 30 million, which means a rocket carrying two satellites becomes a profitable venture. Each space-shuttle launch, on the other hand, costs $275 million. The shuttle serves many other scientific and research functions, but its commercial satellite launching division is far from being able to finance a mission's total cost.
Mr. d'Allest believes his company can eventually capture a third of the world market for putting telecommunications satellites into orbit. Arianespace was recently accused of unfair trade practices by a potential commercial satellite launcher in the US, Transpace Carriers. The office of US Trade Representative William Brock is investigating charges that Arianespace offers services to US customers at 30 percent less than the rate given to Europeans in an effort to corner the US market.
Transpace Carriers has an agreement with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to take over all commercial satellite bookings on the old Thor-Delta rockets, the workhorses of the US space program in the '60s and '70s.
Arianespace general secretary Roland Deschamps contends he is not worried by an investigation: ''It involves government and not the commercial companies. The real problem is the US space shuttle, which we see as our main competitor. The shuttle receives very high subsidies from the American government.''
Ariane has also been heavily subsidized by France and the other member countries of the European Space Agency.