ESA Ministerial Produces a Few Surprises

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PARIS — Among the surprises coming from the European Space Agency’s Dec. 2 ministerial conference in Luxembourg: Britain raising its stake in the international space station; Germany taking a stake in the Italian-led Vega small-launcher program; and ESA lending support to Intelsat’s commercial Epic high-throughput satellite program as well as Inmarsat’s next-generation services.

Of lesser surprise is that France, which had been knocked out of first place among ESA investors by Germany at the previous two ministerial conferences in recent years, is now back on top.

France’s agreement to take a 52 percent stake in the Ariane 6 launcher development program — first launch in 2020 — compared to Germany’s 22 percent is enough by itself to make France’s investment at the ministerial bigger than everyone else’s.

ESA estimates that, of the 15 billion euros ($18.75 billion) in total program commitments it now has from its 20 member governments, France is paying for 28 percent, Germany nearly 25 percent, Italy 13 percent and Britain 8 percent.

According to ESA’s post-ministerial tally, Britain’s role in Europe’s portion of the international space station has risen to about 4.6 percent of the total through 2017, at around 40 million euros.

U.K. astronaut Tim Peake Credit: Twitter
U.K. astronaut Tim Peake Credit: Twitter

What does Britain now see in the space station that it did not see before? One thing is the coming flight of ESA’s first British astronaut, Tim Peake, whose selection by ESA at the time raised eyebrows given the British refusal to fund the station’s exploitation costs.

Here is how the U.K. Space Agency portrayed the decision on Dec. 12:

“Investment in the ISS will give U.K. researchers access to the $100 billion ISS program. … The money will also be invested in a U.K.-built communications terminal for the European node of the ISS … and new opportunities such as deployment of cubesats that can test technology or undertake science experiments from the ISS.”

The British investment was not quite enough to give ESA what it said it needed to operate the station through 2017, but it helped, especially since Italy had been under heavy German pressure to return its contribution level to previous levels after a sharp drop.

What Britain had been in the space station, Germany had been in Vega — a bystander with no regrets. But that, too, changed at the ministerial as Germany stepped in to Vega with the promise that MT Aerospace of Augsburg, a unit of OHB AG of Bremen, would operate a second production line for Vega’s new first stage, the P120. The other production line will be in Italy.

This is the kind of investment that ESA governments seek: Recurring work for their industry in programs guaranteed to continue for many years.

The German government agreed to take a 7 percent stake in Vega — about 15 million euros — but a 23 percent share of the P120 program, an investment of about 147 million euros, putting Germany on par with Italy as a program contributor.

The P120 stage, in addition to being the enhanced Vega’s first stage, will serve as strap-on boosters for the Ariane 6 — two boosters for the Ariane 62 version, and four for each Ariane 64.

Ariane 64. Credit: ESA
Ariane 64. Credit: ESA

In the coming years Vega is forecasted to reach a flight rate of perhaps three launches per year. European governments have guaranteed they will furnish five satellites per year for Ariane 6, and the Ariane 6 business model presumes that it will be able to find six commercial missions, for a total of 11.

At that launch rate, 37 P120 stages would be purchased each year for the combined Vega and Ariane 6 programs.

 

A Little Help for Intelsat, Inmarsat

Encouraged by Britain and Luxembourg, which are both playing outsized roles in certain ESA programs, ESA has made telecommunications research a priority in recent years despite the fact that it is the most commercial of space activities.

That continued, even accelerated, at the Luxembourg ministerial.

Among the programs approved was a 15-million-euro program called Indigo, mainly financed by Belgium, to help Belgian ground-terminal builder Newtec design high-performance terminals for Intelsat.

Intelsat is legally headquartered in Luxembourg, but an ESA official said Indigo is for Intelsat’s operational headquarters in McLean, Virginia, to position Newtec as a premier terminal supplier for Intelsat Epic, a fleet of satellites using Ku-band for now, and other bands later, to provide high-throughput services for mobile communications and other uses.

“Everything we do here is to help European industry win market share and succeed in the marketplace,” said Magali Vaissiere, ESA’s director of telecommunications.

Eutelsat got a leg up for its Quantum flexible satellite platform with an 80-milllion-euro program, to be matched by industry, that was enabled by the British government, which is taking a 90 percent share of the program, which ESA calls AnySat.

Boeing will build four more 702MP satellites for Intelsat's new high-performance satellite fleet, Intelsat EpicNG.
Boeing is building Intelsat’s EpicNG satellites.

London-based mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat was not left out. ESA ministers — again with Britain taking a dominant stake — approved a 25-million-euro program called Inmarsat Communications Evolution.

Satellite builders and commercial satellite fleet operators in the past have complained that ESA often appears to be a launcher-development agency, with satellites viewed as an investment needed to keep the rockets active.

That remains partly true, as the ESA investment in Ariane 6, Vega upgrades and the maintenance of its current rockets through the end of the decade has committed the agency to some 8 billion euros of spending through 2024.

But telecommunications is rising, in part thanks to Britain and Luxembourg, neither of which is investing a penny in Ariane 6, Vega or the P120 stage.