PARIS — A French government-spending watchdog on Feb. 11 warned that replacing Russia’s Soyuz rocket at Europe’s spaceport in the next decade with a new-generation Ariane vehicle could deal a financial blow to Europe’s Arianespace launch services provider.

Evry, France-based Arianespace has taken on debt totaling 171 million euros ($231 million) to finance the purchase of Russian Soyuz rockets and related ground installations, and is amortizing its investment over 20 years starting in 2011, the French Accounting Court said.

Phasing out Soyuz in favor of the proposed Ariane 6 rocket before 2031, the court said, could damage Arianespace’s already fragile financial accounts.

Arianespace officials have said the company’s Soyuz investment-cost amortization period could be adjusted depending on market conditions.

Beyond its investment of 171 million euros, including a 121 million-euro loan from the European Investment Bank guaranteed by France, Arianespace pays a fee of 4.6 million euros per year to operate Soyuz at the spaceport.

In its second review of French and European space transportation policy in 12 months, the Accounting Court, equivalent to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, says the European Union should join France and the 20-nation European Space Agency in financing the Guiana Space Center spaceport on South America’s northeast coast.

The court says the Europeanized Soyuz and the newer Vega small-satellite launcher are used in large part to launch European Union satellites for the Galileo positioning, navigation and timing constellation and the coming Copernicus environment-monitoring system.

France for years has been searching for ways to get EU funding for the spaceport, which is on French territory. It has sought, among other avenues, to have the facility classed as “European Critical Infrastructure” and thus eligible for EU aid.

To date, these efforts have fallen on deaf ears. France pays 80 percent of the spaceport’s general fixed costs and 60 percent of the costs associated with operating the current Ariane 5 ECA heavy-lift vehicle, the court says.

ESA, which contributes financing each year to the Guiana Space Center, declines to account for many costs in evaluating the agency’s contribution at one-third of the total. In fact, the court says, France pays far more than 70 percent of the actual costs of running the facility.

ESA governments are scheduled to meet in December to set a launcher strategy. Awaiting final decisions are the development of an Ariane 6 rocket — smaller, less expensive than the current Ariane 5 ECA — and the completion of work on an Ariane 5 upgrade called Ariane 5 ME.

The court says the Ariane 6 as currently designed — the vehicle would be capable of carrying a 6,000-kilogram satellite to geostationary transfer orbit, where most telecommunications satellites go — will be too expensive to compete for the heavier European government satellites. These spacecraft are suited to Soyuz, the court says. It favors a long-term strategy keeping all three rockets — Ariane 6, Soyuz and Vega — in simultaneous operation.

In its response to the court’s report, Arianespace says even if Ariane 6 meets its target cost of 70 million euros per launch it will be too expensive for some of the smaller commercial telecommunications satellites likely to be in the market in a decade. 

Arianespace says that at 70 million euros for a 3,000-kilogram satellite, the Ariane 6 would be more expensive than today’s Ariane 5 ECA for the passenger riding in the lower position, reserved for the smaller of the two satellites typically launched by the Ariane 5.

The advent of all-electric propulsion for satellites, which can save up to 50 percent on the weight of a telecommunications satellite, could push Ariane 6 to retain a dual-launch capability, Arianespace says in its statement to the court. Up to now, one of Ariane 6’s selling points has been that, unlike Ariane 5 ECA, its financial viability does not require the launch of two satellites at a time.

In its statement, Arianespace cautions that, given the ground-infrastructure costs it currently pays, the low value of the U.S. dollar relative to the euro and the arrival of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. as a competitor for small telecommunications satellites, the company may need to ask ESA governments in December to raise their annual price supports beyond the current 100 million euros per year.

The court acknowledges that operating Soyuz at a rate of just a few launches per year poses problems. The Russian government, the court says, has raised the price of Soyuz vehicles purchased by Arianespace, and the fixed costs of Soyuz’s launch facility already account for 30 percent of the total launch price.

Despite these concerns, the court says the most effective scenario is to maintain three vehicles for the foreseeable future to meet the requirements of the commercial and European government markets.

Ariane 5 prime contractor Airbus Defence and Space, which is all but certain to be a key builder of Ariane 6 as well, disagrees.

In a statement to the court, Airbus Defence and Space says it is “debatable” whether maintaining three rockets is the path to productivity and market competitiveness. The company says separate ground installations, each with maintenance charges, are needed for each vehicle — all for a relatively low annual launch cadence.

“It appears more efficient” to maintain Ariane and Vega with all-European engineering teams, rather than keeping Soyuz, which is operated by a Russian team flown in for each launch, Airbus Defence and Space says.

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