NAPLES, Italy — European Space Agency (ESA) governments committed Nov. 21 some 10.1 billion euros ($13.3 billion) to the agency’s programs in the coming two to four years, including nearly 600 million euros over two years to prepare future rockets to succeed the current Ariane 5 ECA heavy-lift vehicle.

As expected, the most difficult topic at the two-day meeting — and the issue that obliged French, German and ESA delegations to work early into the morning hours of Nov. 21 — was what to do about the Ariane rocket system in the coming years.

Germany wanted ESA to continue work on the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (ME) vehicle, giving the current Ariane 5 rocket a 20 percent increase in power and a restartable upper stage. ESA governments have been developing the Ariane 5 ME vehicle since 2008.

The French government in recent months had become convinced that Ariane 5 ME should cede its place to an entirely new, less-expensive Ariane 6 vehicle, given the new competition for commercial satellite launches in the United States, Russia, China and India.

ESA and other European government officials had said before the two-day meeting began here Nov. 20 that there was a real threat that the Franco-German discord over Ariane’s future could compromise the entire conference.

ESA ministers were debating investment in Earth observation and meteorological satellites, telecommunications spacecraft, space station funding and how much to spend on science missions.

The final compromise on launchers is only for the next two years. In mid-2014, ESA governments will meet again to take stock of the launcher situation.

The two-year investment includes 157 million euros to be spent on design studies for an Ariane 6 rocket, which could fly around 2021 and is intended to replace both the current Ariane 5 heavy-lift vehicle and the medium-lift Soyuz vehicle that is being launched from Europe’s spaceport as part of a 10-year agreement with Russia.

Specific work on the Ariane 5 ME rocket will receive 187 million euros in funding during the two-year period. But Antonio Fabrizi, ESA’s director of launchers, said this investment is being made as part of a longer effort that will see Ariane 5 ME making a first flight in 2017 or 2018.

French Research Minister Genevieve Fioraso confirmed Nov. 21 that France agreed to support Ariane 5 ME through a demonstration flight. Fioraso sought to place the accent on the fact that Ariane 6, which had little support outside France until recently, was now firmly inscribed as an ESA project.

In addition to continued work on Ariane 5 ME and the early design work on Ariane 6, ESA governments agreed to invest 244 million euros for two years on work to assure that Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6 can use the same upper stage, based on the Vinci restartable cryogenic engine.

Peter Hintze, German parliamentary state secretary at the Federal Ministry of Economics and the government’s aerospace policy coordinator, said Germany was happy with the result and with the fact that Ariane 5 ME will be pursued.

Jean-Yves Le Gall, chief executive of the Arianespace launch consortium, which operates and markets Europe’s rockets, said he was “delighted” with the results. In a Nov. 21 interview, Le Gall said that in just six months in office, Fioraso was able to assemble a common position from France’s diverging interests — industry wanted Ariane 5 ME, the government wanted Ariane 6 — and come away with a sizable ESA investment in Ariane 6.

Le Gall said the Ariane 5 version that appears to be in the making features the Vinci cryogenic upper stage and two solid-propulsion lower stages, meaning there will be synergies with Europe’s Vega small-satellite launcher. He said he expected ESA in 2014 to agree to the full development of Ariane 6.

ESA also agreed to spend 84 million euros in the next two years on design improvements for Vega. Perhaps the most notable aspect of this program is that Germany, which up to now has declined to participate in Vega, is taking a 10 percent stake in the new spending program.

Italian officials hope that Germany ultimately will be persuaded to develop an entire Vega stage, replacing the vehicle’s current Avum stage, which is made in Ukraine.



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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.