BREMEN, Germany, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Ariane 6, Europe's next-generation space rocket, is expected to win its first two commercial launch orders in coming weeks, company officials said, a key milestone as the European launcher vies for orders against Elon Musk's U.S. competitor SpaceX.
Operator Arianespace faces increased competition from SpaceX and Blue Origin, owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Japan and India also pose a growing challenge.
Ariane 6 has three institutional orders in hand from the European Commission and France and is close to signing deals with two commercial customers, said Mathias Spude, spokesman for ArianeGroup, a joint venture of Airbus and Safran , that is the majority stakeholder in Arianespace.
The Ariane 6 rocket, due for a first launch in 2020, is slated to be 40 percent cheaper than the current Ariane 5, but industry experts say its projected cost will still be around 70 million euros, well above the rate offered by SpaceX, which uses reusable rocket technology and can count on larger U.S. orders. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Editing by Tim Hepher)