ESA Members Agree To Build Ariane 6, Fund Station Through 2017

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UPDATED Dec. 3 at 9:59 a.m. EDT

LUXEMBOURG — The member governments of the European Space Agency on Dec. 2 agreed to develop a new-generation Ariane 6 rocket to maintain Europe’s share of the global commercial launch market, to enhance the power of the current Vega small-satellite launcher and fund the use of the international space station through 2017.

The space station funding included the remaining payments needed to build the propulsion module for NASA’s second Orion deep-space crew capsule, which is slated to pay an unmanned visit to near-lunar space in 2017 or 2018.

The spending package also included sufficient new cash to continue work on the Euro-Russian ExoMars mission to Mars, notably with a European rover to launch in 2018, and funds for a series of telecommunications programs including new partnerships with commercial fleet operators Intelsat of the United States, Inmarsat of London and Eutelsat of Paris.

The speed of the decision-making — government ministers arrived here Dec. 1 and wrapped up their work to leave early in the evening Dec. 2 — belied the substantial stresses before the meeting between three of ESA’s top four contributors, France, Germany and Italy.

A key area of contention was settled on the eve of the ministerial conference, with Germany agreeing to France’s plan to skip a proposed upgrade to the existing Ariane 5 rocket and proceed directly to the Ariane 6.

ESA governments plan to spend nearly 8.2 billion euros ($10.2 billion) over 10 years on launch-related programs. Slightly more than half of this will go to developing the new Ariane 6, to be operational in 2020. The rocket will feature either two or four solid-rocket strap-on boosters, depending on the mission.

Also included in this budget is money to develop a 120,000-kilogram solid-rocket motor that will serve as the Ariane 6 strap-on booster and as the first stage for the enhanced Vega rocket. The first new-generation Vega is scheduled for launch in 2018.

The remaining portion of the launcher money will be spent on the continued use of, and minor tinkering with, the current Ariane 5 ECA rocket and today’s Vega, as well as for the annual support payments made to the Arianespace launch consortium to permit it to avoid financial losses.

The Ariane 6 business model is designed to fit a new joint-venture company by Airbus Defence and Space and rocket-motor maker Safran.

Airbus and Safran on Dec. 3 announced the formation of Airbus Safran Launchers, with an initial workforce of 450, saying the company would begin formal operations on Jan. 1. The announcement said the creation of the joint venture “naturally assumes an in-principle agreement for the transfer to the JV of shares in Arianespace held by” the French space agency, CNES.

Genevieve Fioraso, France’s space minister, said the transfer of CNES’s 34 percent stake in the Arianespace commercial operator will be postponed to some future date.

The joint venture will be guaranteed five government launches per year at fixed prices. The business model presumes that the company will be able to find commercial customers for six launches per year. The idea is that Airbus, Safran and the future members of the joint venture will receive no subsidies for their commercial launches.

Industry officials said that on occasion the heavier Ariane 64 vehicle will have to be sold at cost — about 91 million euros for a vehicle carrying two commercial satellites into geostationary orbit — to remain competitive.

What happens if European governments cannot round up five missions per year? ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain brushed aside the question, saying that between ESA, the meteorological satellite agency Eumetsat, the national space agencies in Europe and the European Commission, it should not be a problem to maintain the five-per-year pace.

In any event, Dordain said at a press briefing after the conference, the Ariane 6 program will be subject to a late-2016 review at which its operating assumptions will be tested in light of the program’s progress between now and then.

The international space station, meanwhile, had been viewed as perhaps the most contentious issue for the conference. Germany had made clear that it would not continue to finance the gap left in 2012, when Italy sharply reduced its participation, to less than 10 percent, because of the Italian financial crisis.

Germany insisted that Italy return to its previous contribution level of 19 percent.

ESA had asked its governments for about 820 million euros to cover the remaining work on the Orion service module, plus three years of European operations of its space station module, astronaut visits and experiment supply.

When the Orion service module budget is removed, that left around 600 million euros that ESA needed. It came up short by about 20 million euros, a gap Dordain said would not have any serious effect on the use of the station.

The gap would have been greater were it not for the willingness of Britain, which until 2012 had wanted nothing to do with astronauts and the station, to boost its participation to about 5.5 percent.

In the end, Italy confirmed that it would return to the 19 percent level, despite securing less money for space spending over the next several years than it had expected. Where did it find the money?

Italian Space Agency President Roberto Battiston explained it this way: Italy has agreed that its total contribution to the space station over six years — not the three years for which ESA asked for commitments — will be 19 percent.

But the last three of these years, 2018-2020, are now expected to feature a decline in space station funding as Europe prepares to end its participation. Current estimates are that the annual costs will fall sharply starting in 2017.

Battiston said Italy will thus be under the 19 percent level for 2015 through 2017, and above 19 percent for the latter three years, when the total spending amount will be lower.

It may have raised eyebrows, but it was enough to win the applause of Germany’s space minister, Brigitte Zypries, and allow Germany to redirect 15 million euros of planned space station spending toward the ExoMars project — which was Italy’s highest priority at the conference.