Jean-Jacques Dordain. Credit: ESA

PARIS — The head of the European Space Agency (ESA) said the upgraded Ariane 5 rocket approved by ESA governments is unlikely to permit ESA to cease paying annual price supports to Europe’s Arianespace commercial launch consortium despite industry promises to that effect.

But the rocket, called Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (ME), should be able to reduce the volume of these price supports, which now are set at about 120 million euros ($160 million) per year, he said.

“In fact, this is the only reason to build Ariane 5 ME,” ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said during a Nov. 29 briefing with the French aerospace journalists association.

ESA government ministers on Nov. 21 approved a package of investments including 671.6 million euros to be spent in the next two years on Ariane 5 ME and on design work for a new Ariane 6 rocket. Full-scale development of Ariane 6 will require another decision by ESA ministers in 2014.

Ariane 6, designed to launch satellites one at a time and to appeal to European government and commercial customers, would fly by around 2022.

Also approved was a program to maximize the potential synergies between Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6. Both vehicles are expected to use the Vinci cryogenic engine now in development. Dordain said the engine is about 40 percent of the total cost of the upper stage, and work will be done to find other synergies that could mean design changes for Ariane 5 ME to make it more similar to Ariane 6.

Nearly 41 percent of the total Ariane development budget for 2013-2014 is devoted to work on a common upper stage for both rockets.

Ariane 5 ME is scheduled to make its first flight in 2017. Led by prime contractor Astrium Space Transportation, Ariane 5 builders have said the vehicle’s increased performance — about 20 percent more payload-carrying capability than the current Ariane 5 ECA — will generate more revenue for Arianespace.

This additional launch revenue, industry officials have said, could permit Evry, France-based Arianespace to reach financial break-even each year without the operating cost reimbursements now paid by ESA.

Dordain was skeptical.

“Industry has in fact committed itself to no longer needing operating-cost support. Yes, OK,” he said. “But I can draw up a list of industry commitments made to me in the years I have been dealing with them.

“The problem is, we [at ESA] have no choice. If they don’t keep their commitments, what are we supposed to do — stop the payments? These are interesting commitments they have made. It’s just that our member states are obligated to maintain Europe’s access to space.

“I think Ariane 5 ME will allow us to reduce [ESA’s] contribution to operating costs. In fact, this is the only reason to build Ariane 5 ME. But to conclude from this that these costs will be eliminated — we’ll see.”

Dordain said he expects to sign a declaration of intention with the four European governments that regularly build their own satellites — France, Britain, Germany and Italy — and with Europe’s commercial satellite fleet operators in the coming weeks on the future use of Ariane 6.

Dordain said these satellite owners — the commercial operators include SES of Luxembourg, Eutelsat of Paris, Hispasat of Spain, Telenor of Norway, and Avanti and Inmarsat of Britain — will be involved in Ariane 6’s design from the start. In return, he said, they will keep ESA informed about the evolution of the global commercial satellite market as Ariane 6 work progresses.

As Ariane 6 work prepares to enter Phase D, meaning hardware construction, ESA will deliver to these operators the final design and price objectives. Following the vehicle’s successful qualification flight, he said, they will be asked to sign formal long-term commitments to using the rocket.

Dordain said SES, which launches more satellites in a given year than all 20 ESA member states combined, is a regular customer for Ariane 5 but also uses the Russian Proton rocket, commercialized by International Launch Services of Reston, Va. SES has recently signed contracts for three launches aboard Falcon 9 rockets built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif.

“I went to SES and I told [SES Chief Executive] Romain Bausch: ‘You need Ariane. Without Ariane it might be more difficult for you to find an available Proton,’” Dordain said. “The telecommunications [satellite] operators are about the only ones in the space sector who make money. If there were no Ariane, why would Russia agree to launch European operators’ satellites to allow them to make money? So Ariane is a kind of deterrent [against price hikes by other launch alternatives]. There is no sense in having a deterrent that you don’t use.”

SES spokesman Yves Feltes confirmed Dec. 6 that SES has agreed to the kind of commitment to Ariane 6 Dordain addressed. Dordain said the eventual multiyear, multilaunch contracts signed would not mean SES and other operators use only Ariane.

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