CNES Budget Increasing 6 Percent in 2012 Thanks to Bond Issue

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PARIS — The budget of the French space agency, CNES, is increasing by 6 percent in 2012, with most of the increase the result of a public bond issue to be spent on next-generation rocket and satellite technologies, CNES officials announced Jan. 19.

Consistent with recent remarks by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon that space is a priority even at a time of government budget stress, Europe’s largest space power will have a budget of 1.6 billion euros ($2.1 billion) in 2012.

Unlike most of the other members of the 19-nation European Space Agency (ESA), France divides its spending almost equally between ESA and programs run outside ESA, either by France alone or in collaboration with other nations.

For example, CNES is contributing to the ChemCam laser that will analyze small samples of the Mars surface from NASA’s Curiosity rover, which was launched in November and is scheduled to land on Mars in August.

Thanks to the public bond issue, called “Investments in the Future,” CNES’s non-ESA budget in 2012 will grow by nearly 10 percent, to 835 million euros.

As is often the case at CNES, the launcher division has the biggest slice of this budget, at 181 million euros, followed by science and exploration, Earth observation and climate, and security and defense. CNES each year receives financing from France’s research and defense ministries and manages most of France’s military space missions as well as its civil space investment.

The bond issue is expected to result in 600 million euros coming to CNES for specific technology development efforts in the next four years. For 2012, the space agency will be receiving 75 million euros from bond proceeds. Programs included in the bond issue include next-generation broadband satellite communications technologies and an advanced ocean-altimetry satellite mission being planned with NASA.

Some 250 million euros of the bond investment is devoted to next-generation launcher technologies. An initial slice of 82.5 million euros was given to French industry in 2011.

Jan Droz, a manager in CNES’s strategy, programs and international relations directorate, said the remaining launcher-research funds would be distributed between 2012 and 2015. Droz said the funding would cover test firings of next-generation launcher components so that whenever ESA governments decide to begin a full development program, certain technology decisions will have been made.

ESA governments are still debating whether to invest immediately in a next-generation vehicle to succeed the current Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket, or to focus their near-term investment on a new upper stage for the current Ariane 5. A decision is expected in November during a meeting of ESA government ministers.

CNES’s budget contribution to ESA in 2012 is more complicated. ESA documents suggest France’s payments in 2012 will drop by 4 percent, to 718.8 million euros, in 2012 compared with 2011. At that level, France for the first time would no longer be ESA’s biggest contributor, but would drop to second place, just behind Germany — whose space budget is spent mainly through ESA.

Figures provided during a CNES press briefing Jan. 19 say CNES’s contributions are going in the opposite direction, increasing by 2 percent to 770 million euros.

CNES Finance Director Laurent Germain said that both assessments are correct and reflect different definitions of a budget contribution.

Germain explained CNES’s ESA budget this way:

The French agency has 770 million euros that it expects to devote to ESA in 2012. But ESA has estimated that CNES’s obligations in 2012 will amount to just 718.8 million euros. The difference will go toward reducing CNES’s long-standing debt to ESA.

Germain said that under French law, government agencies are obliged to hold in reserve a percent of their allocated budgets to cover broader government emergencies. Most years, he said, this reserve is not used and the money ends up where it was originally directed — in this case, at ESA.

CNES’s outstanding debt to ESA stood at 376 million euros as of Jan. 1, Germain said. The debt was incurred following the last failure of the Ariane 5 vehicle, in late 2002. Germain said that CNES in 2012 would pay down at least 17 million euros of the debt, and up to 51 million euros if, as expected, the government does not withhold any funds from the financial reserve.