France’s CNES backs space station, hedges bets on reusable rockets

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PARIS – The French space agency, CNES, on July 8 updated its policy direction including investment in a U.S.-led environment-monitoring satellite, a recommitment to the International Space Station and a nuanced view of whether reusable rockets would take the commercial market by storm and make the future Ariane 6 rocket obsolete.

Addressing a press briefing here, CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall said France was determine to work with its industry to assure it remains competitive – in launch vehicles and in telecommunications and Earth observation satellites.

The briefing ranged across the diverse domains of CNES investment, some done on its own and some as a key member in the 22-nation European Space Agency (ESA).

Here is a summary of Le Gall’s policy announcements.

200 million euros for U.S.-led SWOT

As expected, CNES’s board of directors, meeting July 7, accepted a recommendation of the agency’s Science Policy Committee to play a major role in the U.S.-led Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission.

Le Gall said the CNES investment would total around 200 million euros ($222 million) and would continue the bilateral U.S.-French collaboration in global water levels that began in the early 1990s with Topex-Poseidon and Jason series of ocean-altimetry satellites.

The Jason series, which continues, is becoming more of a U.S.-European effort. Le Gall said SWOT, which includes British and Canadian participation, will do for continental waters what Jason has done for the oceans.

France backs ISS to 2024

ESA governments as yet have not formally confirmed their continued participation in the International Space Station to 2020, much less 2024.

A meeting of ESA government ministers in December is expected to resolve the issue. Le Gall in the past has hesitated to endorse the 2024 date, saying he would wait until Germany – Europe’s largest space station backer at ESA – made up its mind.

“There is still a debate in Europe about this but I think we are going to continue to 2024,” Le Gall said. “That is our position now that the debate in Germany has settled a bit. We want a joint position with Germany.”

Will the Ariane 6 rocket be competitive with SpaceX?

France is leading European governments’ financing of the future Ariane 6 rocket, whose design goal is to be able to develop and launch a rocket for one-half the cost of the current Ariane 5. Ariane 6 is scheduled to make its inaugural flight in late 2020.

With principal competitor SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, developing a reusable Falcon 9 first stage and predicting substantial cost reductions, some in Europe – Le Gall included – have questioned whether Ariane 6 will not arrive too late.

“It’s clear that if Ariane 6 were operating today it would be very competitive,” Le Gall said. “The question is whether the price cuts you see in the market now – not only at [SpaceX] but in Russia with either new lower-cost rockets or established rockets redesigned for lower-cost operations – will continue.”

Le Gall said it was not yet clear whether reusable launch vehicles would achieve their goal of further cutting launch costs. He suggested there was no urgency in developing a reusable rocket, and that the current state of Ariane 6 development has given designers more confidence that it will meet its design-to-cost goals.

“Today, given the objectives for Ariane 6, it seems the vehicle will be well-placed in the market. And if there is a further series of cost cuts in the market we’ll evaluate that when we see it,” Le Gall said.

Longer term, CNES has proposed to ESA a liquid oxygen/liquid methane engine called Prometheus, designed to cost one-tenth of the Ariane 5’s Vulcain main-stage engine.

ESA Launcher Director Gaele Winters said the agency will propose to its governments in December a development program based on Prometheus.

CNES officials have said they are working with the German and Italian space agencies to craft a four-year, 125-million-euro Prometheus development that would end with a small demonstrator, called Callisto, in 2020.

For Ariane 6, CNES on July 8 signed a contract valued at 200 million euros with an industrial consortium led by France’s Eiffage construction and engineering company for the Ariane 6 launch site’s buildings.

The site is at Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport on the northeast coast of South America next to existing Ariane 5, Soyuz and small-satellite-launch Vega facilities.

The Eiffage-led consortium, called Eclair6, includes Eiffage’s Clemessy, SHE of Germany, Axima of France and ICOP of Italy.

The consortium has committed to completing by October 2018 the Ariane 6 launch pad and its two flame trenches, and the 90-meter-high, 6-million-kilogram mobile service gantry and the launcher assembly building.

CNES is under a 600-million-euro contract with ESA for the entire Ariane 6 launch installation. Jean-Marc Astorg, CNES’s director of launchers, said the remaining 400 million euros would be spent on the Ariane 6 launch pad and the site’s mechanical, electrical and fluid installations.

Selling CNES’s Arianespace stake to Airbus Safran Launchers

CNES has agreed to sell its 35 percent stake in the Arianespace commercial launch consortium to Airbus Safran Launchers, the Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 prime contractor, for 150 million euros.

The sale has been put on hold pending a European Commission inquiry into whether Airbus Safran Launchers’ control of Arianespace would result in anti-competitive discrimination against satellites not built by Airbus Defence and Space, and whether Arianespace’s minority shareholders would be protected.

Le Gall expressed frustration with the slowness of the European Commission inquiry, now extended to mid-August, but said he had little doubt that the sale would be approved. Once the commission issues its ruling, he said, the formal sale of the CNES shares would occur “in a matter of weeks.”

Earth observation and telecommunications competitiveness 

Aided by a French public bond fund devoted to new technologies, CNES has invested in satellite electric propulsion and is now focused on helping industry develop high-throughput satellites to deliver broadband internet.

Le Gall said the goal was a satellite delivering 1 terabit per second of throughput by 2020, with a cost, including launch, of no more than $1 million per gigabit-per-second of throughput, compared to $5 million today.

CNES is also developing a next-generation optical Earth observation sensor to keep French industry competive with U.S., South Korean and other nations now offering images sharper than 50 centimeters for commercial sale.