The European Space Agency (ESA) contracted with an industrial consortium June 22 for pre-development work on a staged-combustion cryogenic engine as part of a broader effort to lay the groundwork for a launch vehicle to succeed today’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket around 2025.

Valued at 60 million euros ($84 million), the contract for the High-Thrust Engine demonstrator with Snecma of France, Avio of Italy and Astrium GmbH of Germany is part of ESA’s Future Launcher Preparatory Program. The contract is part of a package whose total budget, including payments made in 2009, is 107 million euros.

European governments are exploring a range of possibilities for a next-generation rocket that, according to a preliminary consensus among the developers, will be modular in design and capable of placing satellites weighing between 3,000 and 8,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, one at a time.

Ultimately, the rocket, now called Next-Generation Launcher, could replace not just the heavy-lift Ariane 5 but also the medium-lift Russian Soyuz rocket, which European governments will begin operating from Europe’s equatorial launch base in French Guiana in late 2011.

ESA is spending around 350 million euros on a variety of Next-Generation Launcher technology demonstrators and development work.

The French government has allocated about 250 million euros to future launcher studies as part of a public bond issue. The French space agency, CNES, on June 22 awarded Vernon, France-based Snecma an initial contract valued at 7.6 million euros on technologies related to cost reductions for future cryogenic engines.

CNES officials said other contracts related to the next-generation vehicle’s development as part of the bond issue will be signed in the coming weeks. CNES said the goal of the future vehicle is to reduce its propulsion cost by around 20 percent, a reduction that will include costs associated with operations as well as development.



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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.