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Questions Swirl around Future of Europe’s Ariane Launcher Program

Genevieve Fioraso, France’s minister for higher education and research, which with the French defense ministry oversees French space policy, said no formal decision on the Ariane 5 ME enhancement and the Ariane 6 will be made until this summer. Credit: French Socialist Party photo

PARIS — France’s space minister on March 17 said France has made no judgment about whether both a modified Ariane 5 rocket, favored by Germany, and an all-new Ariane 6, favored by France, can be financed given the current pressure on French and other European government budgets.

Genevieve Fioraso, France’s minister for higher education and research, which with the French defense ministry oversees French space policy, said no formal decision on the Ariane 5 ME enhancement and the Ariane 6 will be made until this summer.

Addressing a press briefing here to announce that French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, part of the European Space Agency’s astronaut corps, will fly to the international space station for a six-month mission in 2016, Fioraso said all options are on the table.

In what may have been an unintended remark, Fioraso said that among the factors to consider was the continued viability of France’s cryogenic sector, which for the Ariane rockets is led by Air Liquide of Sassenage, France.

Air Liquide has been fighting for a redesign of the Ariane 6 to include more cryogenic propellant, which would assure the company’s product line and also provide more power to the vehicle. As currently designed, the Ariane 6 features two solid-fueled strap-on boosters and two solid-fueled lower stages — all four of near-identical design — topped by a cryogenic upper stage. Fioraso’s remark, coming after a meeting of an industry-government panel called CoSpace headed by the French space agency, CNES, and Ariane 5 prime contractor Airbus Defence and Space, may indicate that France is ready to consider alternative Ariane 6 configurations.

The 20-nation ESA met March 19-20 to discuss the results of an industrial competition to build Ariane 6 in such a way as to assure that the rocket’s recurring costs do not exceed 70 million euros ($96 million), including the vehicle’s construction and launch, but no decisions were reached.

CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall told the French Senate’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the industrial consortia on Feb. 14 returned with the results of their Ariane 6 studies and confirmed that the 70 million-euro launch cost target was feasible. 

During the Feb. 25 Senate hearing, the edited text of which was published on the Senate’s website, Le Gall also said the industrial study concluded that by limiting Ariane 6 contractors to five nations, the rocket’s development cost could be kept to about 3 billion euros. Under this scenario, he said, France would take a 50 percent share of Ariane 6 costs. Germany would take 25 percent, Italy 15 percent and Switzerland and Belgium would each have a 5 percent share.

In addition to the cost of the launcher, Le Gall said, 750 million euros would be needed for the Ariane 6 ground infrastructure.

Government and industry officials have said for months that the current Ariane 6 design argues for a large Italian participation given Italy’s experience in solid propellant and the fact that the mainly solid-fueled Vega small-satellite launcher is led by Italy. But the Italian government’s ability to finance a large Ariane 6 stake is unclear given the Italian government’s budget crunch. Le Gall conceded as much in his Senate testimony.

Germany is in the opposite situation. Its government has the wherewithal to pay for a big Ariane 6 position, but the current Ariane 6 design is not ideally suited to Germany’s industrial expertise.

In part for this reason, Germany has focused on the Ariane 5 ME, which would increase the current Ariane 5 ECA rocket’s payload-carrying capacity to geostationary transfer orbit — the destination of most telecommunications satellites — by 20 percent. Ariane 5 ME backers, led by Airbus, have promised that Ariane 5 ME would cost no more to build, once development is completed, than the current Ariane 5 ECA.

The Ariane 5 ME, elements of which have been in development for years, is expected to require 1 billion euros to complete development, with a first launch in 2018.

ESA governments will meet in Luxembourg in December to determine how to proceed on Ariane, and also whether to extend their commitment to the international space station to 2020, and perhaps beyond. NASA has said it wants to operate the station to 2024.

Evry, France-based Arianespace has said Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of the United States and other competition, combined with a weak U.S. dollar relative to the euro, will require the company to ask ESA governments for an increase in the fixed-cost reimbursement payments the agency pays out each year.

In his Senate testimony, Le Gall said these additional charges starting in 2015 are one more reason that financing Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6 at the same time may not be feasible. Le Gall has long favored Ariane 6.

The ongoing frictions about how to proceed with Ariane have clearly put government and industry on edge, as evidence by a recent letter to Arianespace from ESA’s new launcher director, Gaele Winters. In his letter, dated March 14, Winters said the recent declaration by Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel that his company would be willing to “Americanize” Ariane 5 production in return for the right to launch U.S. government satellites is not helpful in winning ESA support for higher annual support costs.

“The solidarity of [ESA] participating states is closely associated to their contribution of their industry within Ariane 5 production, and any question concerning this contribution may break such solidarity,” Winters said. “I deeply regret that you did not consult ESA about your intentions.”

Furthermore, he said, Arianespace is bound by ESA and French government technology-export rules, and by ESA legal statues relative to launch-vehicle use, Winters said.

Without confirming the content of Winters’ letter, an Arianespace official on March 18 said the company has no immediate plans to solicit a U.S. industrial role in Ariane 5 production and would consult with ESA before making any such move. The longer-term goal, the official said, is to encourage the U.S. government to open at least part of its market to the European rocket, perhaps as part of the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership it is negotiating with the European Commission.

 

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes


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