The space industry is facing a gap in satellite launches by Western carrier vehicles that could last several months. As a result of the failure of a West European Ariane rocket at the end of May, the West will -- for an indeterminate period -- have no way of putting spacecraft into orbit, an activity the space business thought it had mastered a decade ago.
The Ariane failure destroyed a satellite being carried into space for Intelsat, the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization. It was the launcher's fourth mishap in 18 missions. The accident followed a string of failures in the United States space program this year which has grounded the primary US expendable vehicles -- Delta, Titan, and Atlas-Centaur -- as well as the space-shuttle fleet.
Ariane flights will be suspended indefinitely until a board set up to investigate the accident finds out what went wrong. Its initial report is due at the end of June.
Arianespace, the French company selling launch slots on the rocket, said the cause of the mishap was the failure of the automatic ignition sequence used to start the firing of the rocket's third stage. The firm said it could not speculate on how long flights will be delayed. After two previous failures involving Ariane, in October 1982 and last September, launches were delayed for eight and five months respectively.
Before the most recent accident, Arianespace had been hoping to gain commercially from the suspension of US launch activities. It has increased the number of scheduled Ariane flights to eight a year and was beginning to receive bookings from satellite owners who had previously hoped to launch their payloads from the space shuttle. For example, GTE Corporation and the British government have both in recent weeks asked Arianespace to put into orbit payloads previously earmarked for the shuttle.
The main losers from the suspension of US and European launches are companies and governments which over the next two years had hoped to launch about 30 communications satellites into geostationary orbit, most of them by either Ariane or the shuttle fleet.
The commercial launch business is worth about $500 million a year, and, until the recent spate of accidents, was roughly shared between Arianespace and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
According to David Lippy, president of the Center for Space Policy, Inc., a US consulting firm, the delays have left these concerns ``in the lurch.'' He says that most organizations with satellites to launch will have little option other than to adjust their schedules and wait for launch services to return to normal, a process that could take at least a year.
According to NASA officials, the shuttle fleet is unlikely to be flying before July next year. And it is thought that the US expendable rockets are unlikely to be operational before September or October.
A possible beneficiary of the West's launching problems is China, which has offered to take satellites into orbit using its Long March 3 rocket. The Chinese have already signed up the Swedish government for the launch of a small communications satellite. China also has outlined an agreement with Teresat Inc., a Houston-based investment company, for the launch of two communications satellites.
The Soviet Union has also offered to launch Western satellites. Several years ago, the Soviets made a formal proposal to Inmarsat, the 44 member-country international organization that provides satellite communications facilities for ships, to take Inmarsat's new generation of space vehicles into space. The offer was never accepted.
According to Mr. Lippy, the possibility of using either Chinese or Soviet rockets is hedged with difficulties. Lippy says it is difficult to see companies entrusting a valuable payload with a relatively unproven launch vehicle operated by a foreign power. For US satellite companies, meanwhile, State Department regulations on transfer of technology rule out use of Soviet launchers and could also impede use of the Chinese rocket.
According to US officials, under munitions control regulations, US satellites would not be allowed to be transported to the Soviet Union for launch. The same rules, said the source, may affect whether US satellites can be transported to China for the same purpose.
According to the State Department, Teresat has not yet applied for authorization of the transfer of the satellites to China. Launch of satellites with the Long March 3 is expected to be 10 percent to 15 percent cheaper than the $30 million to $40 million launch fee charged by both NASA and Arianespace.
Another company, Western Union, said it was ``actively considering'' the Chinese offer. Western Union had intended launching its Westar 6-S satellite on a shuttle flight scheduled for this month.
``We have been looking around for alternatives and intend to launch the satellite sooner rather than later,'' said a Western Union spokesman. Western Union has contacted Arianespace to look at options for launching on Ariane but has not made a reservation.
What is behind the recent run of launch failures? Geoffrey Pardoe, a British space consultant, says it is ``bad luck,'' rather than fundamental design problems.
Roy Gibson, head of Britain's National Space Center and a former Director General of the European Space Agency, says that human error and lack of attention to quality control may be at the root of the problems. ``Launchers are unforgiving animals,'' he says.
One consequence of the mishaps may be to delay by several years grandiose plans by NASA to build a permanently manned space station to be operational in the mid-1990s. The latest setback for Ariane may slow development of Ariane-5, a new heavy-duty form of the rocket which is due to begin service around 1995.
Three of the Ariane's four failures concerned the rocket's third-stage, cryogenic engine, which gives a particularly high thrust and burns a mixture of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. Another cryogenic engine, only bigger and more powerful, is under development by the French National Space Agency as the first stage motor for Ariane-5.