UPDATED April 12 at 10:10 am EST

PARIS — Astrium Space Transportation will pursue development of an upgraded Ariane 5 launch vehicle under a contract with the European Space Agency (ESA) valued at 112 million euros ($150 million), Astrium announced April 10.

The contract covers work on the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution, or Ariane 5 ME, program that ESA governments partially approved in late 2008. Ariane 5 ME would increase the vehicle’s payload-carrying power to geostationary transfer orbit for no increase in production cost when compared with today’s Ariane 5.

The 19-nation ESA will take a second look at Ariane 5 ME in November during a meeting of its governments’ space ministers. The agency is expected to decide then whether to pursue Ariane 5 ME to completion — essentially developing a new, restartable upper stage and testing it atop the current Ariane 5 — or take the relevant Ariane 5 ME work and use it to pursue an entirely new rocket to be in service around 2025.

ESA governments in 2008 agreed to spend 357 million euros on Ariane 5 ME, including the Vinci restartable engine under development by the Snecma division of Safran. Astrium and ESA signed an initial contract for Ariane 5 ME development in late 2009 valued at 150 million euros for what was intended to be two years of work. The assumption was that the ESA ministerial conference would occur in late 2011.

The conference has been postponed by a year and is now scheduled to occur in late November in Italy. The yearlong delay has given proponents of a next-generation rocket time to make their case.

The current debate centers on whether ESA governments, many of them struggling with high debt levels, should spend 1 billion euros or more to complete Ariane 5 ME work, or invest in a new-generation rocket that would be less expensive to operate and less reliant on the commercial telecommunications market to maintain financial viability.

The French and German ministries responsible for space have created a joint working group to debate the issue and return a judgment by June 30. A firm consensus reached by ESA’s two largest contributors on the way forward with Europe’s showcase launcher program likely would be accepted by the other ESA delegations.

The signing of the contract announced April 10 means ESA has now spent the 357 million euros that its governments allocated to Ariane 5 ME in 2008. In addition to the two major Astrium contracts, ESA had contracted earlier with Paris-based Safran’s Snecma for work on the Vinci restartable cryogenic upper-stage engine.

Toni Tolker-Nielsen, ESA’s Ariane program manager, said about half of the 112 million euros covered in the most recent contract has in fact already been spent by the Astrium team through authorizations to proceed with ESA. Tolker-Nielsen said the final tranche of the funding approved in 2008 is only just now being spent because it had to await the Ariane 5 ME preliminary design review, which was completed in December.

In an April 11 interview, Tolker-Nielsen said Ariane 5 ME participating governments in March approved a further 85 million euros for the program, mainly to be spent by Astrium on the ME upper stage, and by Snecma on Vinci-related work in 2012.

Nearly four years after receiving preliminary approval, the Ariane 5 ME program remains largely on schedule and within its budget, Tolker-Nielsen said. The original 1.5 billion-euro cost of the stage — a figure that includes a qualification flight — is now estimated to have grown to 1.6 billion euros in 2008 economic conditions.

Tolker-Nielsen said the major program parameters remain as they were described to ESA government ministers in 2008: Ariane 5 ME will provide a 20 percent increase, to 12,000 kilograms, in Ariane 5’s payload-carrying capability to geostationary transfer orbit, the destination of most telecommunications satellites. As promised to ministers, he said, the more-powerful vehicle will cost no more to build and operate than the current Ariane 5 ECA variant.

As prime contractor, Astrium will be making commitments for both Ariane 5 ME’s nonrecurring costs — meaning one-time expenses incurred during development — and the recurring costs of operating the vehicle. Whether the company will sign a binding commitment on the recurring costs “is an open point,” Tolker-Nielsen said. “We would like some kind of contractual commitment.”

If approved by ESA ministers in November, Ariane 5 ME could make a demonstration flight in 2017. It would then be operated along with the Ariane 5 ECA model for a transitional period of about three years before replacing the ECA variant in 2020. The cost commitment ESA would like to see from Astrium would include a price-escalation formula and would cover the period between 2020 and 2029, Tolker-Nielsen said.

Most of the Ariane 5 ME work already contracted — especially the Vinci engine — will be useful whatever ESA ministers decide in November, Tolker-Nielsen said. “The work will not be lost” even if ESA governments decide to move directly to a next-generation rocket, he said. “The Vinci engine is present in almost all scenarios [for future launcher development] and the re-ignitability is useful as well.”



ESA Expresses Interest in NASA Facility To Test Ariane 5 Upgrade

France, Germany To Establish Working Group To Resolve Ariane 5 Differences

Astrium Chief Presses His Case for New Ariane 5 Upper Stage

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