French Debris-mitigation Law Could Pose Issue for Arianespace

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PARIS — A new French space law designed to reduce orbital debris, and especially to prevent liability from rocket upper stages re-entering the atmosphere and causing injury or property damage, risks posing problems for commercial launch services provider Arianespace of France.

Industry officials said the Law on Space Operations, which forces French launch providers to direct the upper stages of their rockets into trajectories that will cause them to come down over water or to disintegrate immediately after launch, for now is a uniquely French contribution to global space jurisprudence.

As such, they said, the Arianespace consortium could lose business because its rockets will need to carry hundreds of kilograms of additional fuel to perform the direct-deorbit maneuver. Its competitors are operating under no equivalent constraints.

“We in France seem to have a talent for shooting ourselves in the foot with regulations that hurt our industry and have no effect on the worldwide market, which is where we compete,” one French industry official involved in Ariane 5 production said.

The law, which takes effect gradually in the coming years, will be applicable to all new vehicles, including the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution rocket now midway through development, according to the French space agency, CNES.

Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport is on French territory, making France the “launching state” in terms of regulatory responsibility for vehicles operated there.

The 20-nation European Space Agency, of which France is a member, has said it will follow the law’s requirements even though it is under no legal obligation to do so.

The Ariane 5 ME is designed to increase the current Ariane 5 ECA rocket’s power by about 20 percent, permitting the rocket to carry two satellites weighing a combined 12,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit.

The new vehicle’s actual performance will be about 12,700 kilograms to that orbit, which is the most popular destination for the commercial telecommunications satellites that account for the vast majority of Arianespace’s business. 

Subtracting the weight of the structure that keeps the two satellites from banging into each other on liftoff leaves 12,000 kilograms of actual satellite payload-carrying capability for Ariane 5 ME, according to industrial estimates of the vehicle’s performance. A first flight is scheduled for 2018, pending ESA governments’ approval of go-ahead financing late this year.

But carrying sufficient fuel to assure a controlled re-entry of the upper stage reduces the vehicle’s performance to between 11,200 and 11,500 kilograms.

For Evry, France-based Arianespace, the difference is important. The company’s Ariane 5 business model is based on finding two compatible satellites to fill as much of the Ariane 5 as possible. The company already has problems finding two payloads for its Ariane 5 ECA.

“The difference between 12 and 11.2 or 11.5 [metric] tons is the difference between carrying two large satellites at a time or having to match one large and one medium-size satellite,” said another industry official whose company is involved with Ariane 5 rockets.

Christophe Bonnal, a senior expert in CNES’s technical division, declined to comment on the space law but made the case for its adoption.

“In 2013, 83 rocket upper stages or large satellite pieces re-entered the atmosphere,” Bonnal said here during the Space Access conference organized by Astech Paris Region, adding that sooner or later one of these objects is going to cause serious injury.

Bonnal is a French representative on the 12-nation Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), which includes most nations with active space launch capabilities. “The IADC members have agreed that if there is a greater than 10 to the minus 4 [1 in 10,000] chance of a stage re-entering and causing a fatality— and this is the case for all large rocket upper stages — then it should be ordered on a controlled re-entry. The United Nations has adopted similar guidelines, as has ISO.”

ISO, or the International Organization for Standardization, in 2011 adopted ISO 24113 that makes similar recommendations.

“But up to now, no one has agreed to enforce these guidelines,” Bonnal said.

Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel declined to discuss the space law’s effect on his company’s future business, saying Arianespace fully intends to abide by the law’s conditions.

One official said the space law leaves room for an agency or company to ask for a waiver. Whether the prospect of losing a customer at Arianespace will be judged as an acceptable reason will depend on who at CNES is managing the legal division at the time, industry officials said.

For now, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is studying the issues of debris and upper-stage re-entry risk but does not have a policy mandating controlled deorbiting of large upper stages for U.S. vehicles, said Paul Eckert, manager for budget, policy and international affairs at the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

Eckert said the regulatory regime will certainly evolve, but that one complicating factor is the different legal regimes that control a launcher, and authority for objects in space.

The French space law is only now making itself felt throughout the nation’s space activities. It affects satellites as well as launchers, and has multiple requirements for small spacecraft as they reach the end of their operating lives.

“What we have is an additional layer of regulation now imposed on just about every space activity,” said one French industry official. “It is surprising that no one has yet raised the alarm because this will affect not just Arianespace but also CNES and others that are in joint satellite projects with other nations outside Europe.”

 

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CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated Bonnal’s title.