TOULOUSE, France — Companies interested in taking part in a revolution in the way Europe develops and builds rockets have submitted more than 150 proposals for overturning the current launch vehicle industrial base to build the next-generation Ariane 6 within the cost objectives, European government officials said.
The massive response, which officials said was better than they dared expect, will now be evaluated by the 20-nation European Space Agency () as it crafts a proposal to its governments to finance Ariane 6.
“Some of these responses have been extremely interesting and innovative,” said Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of the French space agency, CNES. CNES has indicated it expects to maintain its leadership in Europe’s launcher sector by financing 50 percent of Ariane 6.
Ariane 6’s current design specifications call for a rocket capable of lifting a commercial telecommunications satellite weighing up to 6,500 kilograms into geostationary orbit at a maximum cost of 70 million euros, or $95 million at current exchange rates.
“What we have done here is play the competition card,” said Stefano Bianchi, head of launcher development at ESA. “Some of the companies have submitted 10 or 12 proposals for different parts of what we called the Key Launcher Elements solicitation. Our job now is to transform these ideas into a program.”
Even as it calls for ideas for the Ariane 6 development program, which CNES and France want to start as soon as possible, ESA is pursuing an enhanced version of the current Ariane 5 rocket, called Ariane 5 Mid-life Evolution (ME). The Ariane 5 ME’s principal new feature is a restartable upper stage, powered by the Vinci engine under development by Snecma of France.
To save money on what might appear to be competing programs, ESA in late 2012 began a parallel effort to make the Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6 upper stages more or less the same.
Astrium Space Transportation, which is prime contractor for the Ariane 5 and is looking to perform the same job on Ariane 6, on Oct. 16 announced contracts totaling 414 million euros ($559 million) to work on Ariane 5 ME, Ariane 6 designs and elements common to both vehicles.
The biggest of the three contracts, valued at 278 million euros, is for Ariane 5 ME/Ariane 6 commonalities.
ESA governments are scheduled to decide in December 2014 whether to proceed with full-scale development of Ariane 6 on its own, or alongside Ariane 5 ME.
France’s enthusiasm for Ariane 6 has been matched by Germany’s attachment to Ariane 5 ME. The tug of war between Europe’s two biggest space powers occasionally leaves other space programs appearing as hostages to the outcome of the launcher debate.
This is the case for Europe’s space station commitment. While France conducted 16 astronaut missions with Russia and the United States between 1982 and 2002, its enthusiasm for astronaut-related programs in the past decade has appeared to wane.
At the last meeting of ESA government ministers, in November 2012, France appeared to use its space station participation as a bargaining chip to persuade Germany to accept the start of Ariane 6.
In the end, France agreed to continue its participation in the space station, second to Germany among European contributors to the ESA part of the program, through 2020. Whether it will go any further than that is unclear.
In a briefing with journalists here Oct. 15 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the CNES Cadmos center for space and microgravity operations — which manages European physiology experiments on the space station — Le Gall declined to be drawn into a discussion of where the space station fits among French space priorities.
“The [station] is a reality and it is a political, technical and scientific success,” Le Gall said. “It also promotes space and gets people talking. It’s a success on the media front. What France would like to see is a global accord among the major European players on the way forward in launchers, the space station, and science and exploration.”
Asked whether France would support a further extension of the station’s life to 2027 or 2028, as is now being studied, Le Gall said the question is likely to be answered by the obsolescence of certain space station components rather than by policymakers. Some key station components, he suggested, cannot be replaced without a heavy vehicle like the now-retired U.S. space shuttle to carry them there.
One official said Le Gall’s negotiations with Germany on the future of the Ariane program would prevent the CNES chief from championing the space station effort. Le Gall is able to maintain his bargaining leverage with Germany, Europe’s most enthusiastic station supporter, only by appearing not to care if the facility is shuttered in 2020, this official said.
In the meantime, the 30 Cadmos specialists that monitor station physiology experiments are preparing for an increase in their number in 2016 as ESA prepares to launch the Atomic Clocks Ensemble in Space experiment, which will require 24/7 oversight by Cadmos. CNES is developing the cesium clock, and Switzerland the hydrogen maser clock, for the package, which will operate on the outside of Europe’s Columbus space station module.
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