Posted by: Frederik Balfour on October 29, 2008
Unless you are a pre-adolescent boy or perhaps Rupert Murdoch, you probably don’t spend much time thinking about satellite rocket launchers. I know I don’t, but today, on the sidelines of the Cable & Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia’s annual conference, I had the opportunity to meet with Jean-Yves Le Gall, a guy who can tell you more about Geostationary orbits and G Force acceleration than just about anybody. In fact the screen saver on his 3G phone even has a photo of the latest satellite launch from French Guiana, and the huge flat panel screen in his suite at the freshly opened W Hotel in Hong Kong has a DVD on continuous loop with plenty of footage of enormous payloads and guys in shirt sleeves congratulating each other in the control rooms. No high fives however, just handshakes. Le Gall is chairman and CEO of Arianespace based in Evry, near Paris, not Houston and a little Gallic reserve is maintained, even at successful blast-offs.
While doing some research in advance of our interview, I mistakenly typed Arianaspace.com instead of Arianespace.com and found myself staring at a social networking website for Afghans. Sadly, I forgot to ask Le Gall if he had ever made the same mistake, but I never saw an opening in our decidedly technical conversation, only some of which I was able to follow.
Anyway, here are a few of the interesting things gleaned from that 30 minute interview worth sharing. [ADDITION ON NOV 3. SEVERAL ALERT READERS HAVE QUITE RIGHTLY POINTED OUT I HAVE NOT PROPERLY DONE MY HOMEWORK FOR THIS BLOG. A VENEZUELAN SATELLLITE BUILT USING CHINESE TECHNOLOGY WAS LAUNCHED FROM CHINA ON OCTOBER 30, A DAY AFTER THIS BLOG POSTING. ]
According to Le Gall, the carbon footprint of a typical 60 meter satellite launch isn’t much worse than your garden variety commercial jet take off. He says because the rocket accelerates so quickly that it reaches an altitude of 120 kilometers within about two minutes, and hence is too far from the earth’s atmosphere to affect global warming.
The Chinese may be the third country to put a man in space, but in the international satellite launching race China still has some catching up to do. While Chinese rocket launching technology is up to scratch, Chinese-made satellites are not. A typical Chinese bird will last only about five years in orbit, compared with as long as 18 years for western built one. What’s more, a U.S. ban on sales of military technology to China extends to satellites, which means China can’t launch third country satellites containing U.S. made parts. However Le Gall isn’t being complacent and expects China will be a competitor for Arianespace within a decade.
Lastly, the satellite rocket launching business is going to feel the global slowdown just like everybody else. Arianespace has already seen some deals to launch satellites for customers in Australia and Indonesia pushed back, and Le Gall says the difficulty of financing [a big satellite costs about $300 million] will mean fewer launches by Arianespace next year, probably as few as 15 compared to an expectation just a few months ago that the company would launch as many as 25 for customers in 2009.
The demand for new satellites could also suffer from end-users tightening their belts. “Many people may stop being willing to pay for pay TV, use less internet and less mobile phone services,” he said. “We are looking at this with very much concern.”