The French government has signaled its intention to sell its stake in Arianespace, a major step in consolidating the European launcher industry under the control of a joint venture formed by Airbus and rocket engine manufacturer Safran.
The move is a significant milestone in the shakeup of the European launch sector as rocket component suppliers, production facilities and operations and sales teams from Arianespace combine in a single organization.
Airbus Defense and Space and Safran announced last year the formation of Airbus Safran Launchers, a joint venture that married the prime contractor and engine-maker for Europe’s Ariane rocket program.
The companies said they formed the joint venture as a cost-cutting measure with a goal of creating a more efficient supply chain for Europe’s Ariane launchers in response to competition from newcomers to the market like SpaceX.
Airbus Safran Launchers took ownership of 39 percent of Arianespace in January. A statement from the French prime minister’s office Wednesday confirmed government’s plans to sell its nearly 35 percent stake in Arianespace to Airbus Safran Launchers, which would give the company control of 74 percent of the Evry, France-based launch provider.
The French space agency CNES holds the government’s stake in Arianespace, which flies the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket, a Europeanized version of Russia’s Soyuz booster and the Italian-led Vega launcher from the French-run Guiana Space Center on the northern coast of South America.
More than a quarter of Arianespace shares will remain in the hands of smaller subcontractors spread across France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark.
The selloff by the French government will end more than 50 years of CNES leadership in rocket design and development, which included the Diamant launcher in the 1960s, making France the third nation after the Soviet Union and the United States to send its own satellite into orbit.
For the first time in Europe’s space program, the new Ariane 6 rocket is designed by the private sector, and will be funded in a public-private partnership between Airbus Safran Launchers and the European Space Agency.
CNES remains responsible for ground systems at the French Guiana launch base.
Industry officials said the aim of Arianespace’s consolidation is to make the company more vertically integrated, aligning the manufacturer and operator under the same corporate parent and giving Airbus Safran Launchers visibility into more of the Ariane rocket’s life cycle from the factory floor to the launch pad.
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