PARIS — An anticipated funding boost for the Italian Space Agency has fallen short of expectations, raising doubts about Italy’s ability to fully support programs including Europe’s role in the international space station as well as the nation’s next-generation civil-military radar satellite system, according to industry and government officials.
Doubts about Italy’s ability to take part in Europe’s launch vehicle development and continued use of the space station have been overshadowed in recent months by the Franco-German dispute on launcher. But with France and Germany seemingly on the way to an agreement, Italy’s financial issues have now moved to center stage as European governments prepare to decide the launcher and space station issues at a Dec. 2 meeting in Luxembourg of European Space Agency governments.
In a Nov. 24 briefing with journalists, Jean-Loic Galle, chief executive of Franco-Italian space hardware builder Thales Alenia Space, said Italy’s ability to meet other ESA governments’ expectations of it at the Luxembourg conference hinged on an amendment to the Italian budget giving the Italian Space Agency (ASI) 200 million euros ($250 million) in additional funds per year between 2015 and 2017.
The funds would be used to assure that Italy takes its historic 19 percent share of Europe’s costs associated with the space station after having lowered its contribution in 2012; funds its dominant stake in upgrades to Europe’s Vega small-satellite launcher; and signs on to support the next-generation Ariane 6 rocket.
Galle said the 200 million-euro cash injection was also intended to finance continued work on Italy’s second-generation Cosmo-SkyMed radar Earth observation system, which Thales Alenia Space is building.
“Our information is that this money will not be available,” Galle said. “These funds were really mandatory for Italy to fund these programs, of which Cosmo-SkyMed and Vega are the most important for Italy. So now there is really a question mark over Italy and its contribution.”
ASI President Roberto Battiston acknowledged the funding shortfall but said the situation is not as dire as Galle suggested. In a briefing with reporters Nov. 25, Battiston said ASI is determined to see its ESA priorities through, including the Italian-led ExoMars mission to Mars and the Vega upgrade, but conceded that space station funding is in question and that Cosmo-SkyMed could face delays.
The German government, which leads Europe’s participation in the space station program, has said Italian authorities have given informal assurances that Italy will fund its 19 percent share of the space station starting in 2015. ESA is asking for 800 million euros from its governments to cover space station costs between 2015 and 2017, including building the service module for NASA’s Orion crew-transport vehicle.
The Italian government in the past has resorted to inventive financing schemes to retain its rank in ESA programs, usually third place, behind France and Germany and, since 2013, about tied with a surging British ESA participation.
Italy has asked ESA to take out low-interest loans on its behalf, and has entered into partnerships with Thales Alenia Space and others for co-financing and co-ownership of ostensibly government space systems.
Italy’s partners in ESA remained hopeful that Italy will find some creative means to permit the launcher, space station and radar satellite systems to go ahead.
Galle said there was some hope that the British government may find its way to a modest space station financial contribution, especially with a British national now in training as an ESA astronaut for a future space station visit.
Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian, arrived at the space station Nov. 24 for a five-month stay, an event Galle said should stimulate Italy’s interest in maintaining its space program.
Galle said the failure of the 200 million-euro funding package does not affect Italy’s position as leader of Europe’s ExoMars missions to Mars in 2016 and 2018. The 2018 mission, which includes a rover, is missing about 200 million euros in funding. Galle said indications are that these funds have been found among ESA member governments.
Galle said Thales’ previous concerns that the Ariane 6 launcher might be designed to favor satellites built by Airbus Defence and Space — the Ariane 6 prime contractor — have been the subject of letters sent to the European Commission by several satellite manufacturers in Europe and the United States.
“It’s not just a Thales concern,” Galle said. “The other manufacturers expressed the same concerns to the European Commission. What we want is to assure that access to Ariane 6 will be made available to everyone on equal conditions.”
Galle said 30 percent of Thales’ satellite awards, meaning telecommunications and Earth observation combined, are in-orbit-delivery contracts. In these, the customer asks satellite bidders to include the launch in their proposals, with the winner often decided on launch price and schedule.
Galle said access to Ariane 6 will be the subject of future discussion with Airbus and Safran, the two companies starting a joint venture to manage Ariane 6, when they conclude negotiations with the French government on the purchase of government shares in the Arianespace launch consortium.