ESA Ministers Reject ‘Buy European’ Launch Proposal

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European Space Agency governments declined to adopt a tough measure that would have required the use of European rockets to launch European government satellites, a proposal that came to be known as the “Buy European Act.” Instead, the government ministers who make ESA policy agreed only to make it more difficult for governments to use lower-cost non-European alternatives for launching ESA satellites.

A proposal to force all European governments — ESA, the European Union, Eumetsat and individual nations — to use Europe’s current Ariane 5 or the future Europeanized Soyuz rocket and the smaller Vega launch vehicle now in development was rejected. Several government officials said it would be legally impossible to enforce. Others said they feared giving a blank check to Europe’s launcher industry.

In the end, even the strongest supporters of the measure agreed to remove most of its enforcement teeth. “We are not trying to promote a monopoly in the launcher sector,” French Research Minister Francois Goulard said. “We are insisting only on giving a preference” to European vehicles.

Almost all large European government satellites are launched on the Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket, except in the case of bilateral programs with other countries outside Europe.

The European version of the Russian Soyuz launch vehicle, which will be operated from the spaceport at Europe’s Guiana Space Center starting in 2009, also is considered to be attractive enough — well-proven and priced at about $40 million per launch — not to need special government support.

But the Italian-led Vega vehicle, which is being prepared for a first launch in 2008, is entering a highly competitive market in which Russian, Ukrainian, Indian and possibly future U.S. alternatives will be able to offer lower prices.

To help Vega through its initial launches and establish itself in the market, ESA governments agreed to price supports and technology assistance totaling about 245 million euros ($289 million) through 2010. These subsidies, covering Vega’s first five launches, will permit Vega to offer itself to ESA’s science and Earth observation program, and to other European government users, for 14.5 million euros per launch.

The next five launches will be sold for around 17 million euros per launch. After the 10th launch, prices will fluctuate, with an upper limit of 21 million euros and a guarantee that government users should not be paying more than 25 percent over the prevailing market rate.

Italian Space Agency President Sergio Vetrella said in a Dec. 7 interview that Italy wants ESA to set a coordinated policy that protects both the launcher and the satellite industry against low-cost competitors. Vetrella said benchmarking commercial rates is just as important for European government satellite programs as for launchers, especially given the consolidation in the satellite industry.

“Our position is that this launcher policy should be only the first step in clarifying the ESA approach,” Vetrella said. “We need to decide: What is a reasonable price and who decides it?”

David Williams, director of strategy at the 18-nation Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization of Darmstadt, Germany, said Eumetsat has been a faithful customer of Ariane vehicles but does not want to be obliged to buy European products. “We are driven by cost and affordability, and there is a point beyond which we cannot agree,” Williams said in a Dec. 5 interview.

To reduce the schedule and other risks associated with buying European rockets, the final resolution — which affects only ESA satellites — says European vehicles must be reasonably priced to merit their preference. It also mentions the German-Russian Rockot vehicle as a backup for Vega.

In addition, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said the agency will no longer purchase Ariane or other launch services without a backup rocket ready in the event the selected vehicle is unavailable.

The new policy will mean the agency should be able to avoid extended launch delays if the Ariane 5 rocket, Europe’s heavy-lift vehicle, is unable to launch an ESA satellite when scheduled. Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium already has a mutual-backup agreement with Sea Launch LLC of Long Beach, Calif., and with Japan’s H-2A vehicle, but up until now ESA has not signed an Ariane 5 launch contract with a backup option.

The policy, to take effect immediately, will raise the likelihood that Sea Launch or Japan’s H-2A will be called upon to launch an ESA satellite that, for whatever reason, cannot be launched on schedule by an Ariane 5. ESA was forced to delay the launch of its Rosetta comet-chaser satellite by a year, to March 2004, when technical issues grounded Ariane 5. Under the new policy, the Rosetta launch presumably would have been switched to either Sea Launch or the H-2A.

Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said in a Dec. 7 interview that he has no problem with the mandatory-backup policy. Le Gall said Arianespace is “extremely pleased” with the resolution as passed, despite its mildness compared to the original version.

“It concerns ESA launchers but I am convinced it will have a snowball effect,” Le Gall said. “It will be more difficult now for other European governments to justify using a non-European launcher. It’s only normal in these negotiations that you start with a maximalist position to end up with something that can be adopted by consensus.”