France To Boost ESA Contribution 10 Percent in 2011

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BRUSSELS, Belgium — The French government and the French space agency, CNES, on Oct. 26 signed a new five-year budget contract that provides a 10.2 percent increase in France’s spending at the European Space Agency (ESA) starting in 2011, the French Research Ministry announced.

The increase, which will bring the French contribution to the 18-nation ESA to 755 million euros ($1.06 billion) in 2011, is less than the 12.4 percent boost that CNES officials had been counting on until earlier this year. But the ministry said it would enable France to meet its commitments to its ESA partners for programs already agreed to, while also permitting France to pay off its debt to ESA by 2015.

The CNES debt to ESA, which originated in 2002 when the Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket failed and was struggling for financial backing, is expected to be 450 million euros at the end of 2010 and to peak at about 500 million euros in 2011 before decreasing, CNES Financial Director Laurent Germain said.

In an Oct. 28 interview, Germain said France’s ESA contributions will increase to 795 million euros in 2012 and then climb in smaller increments to reach 849 million euros in 2015.

The investment level starting in 2013 is likely to be affected by a conference of ministers of the 18-nation ESA, now scheduled for 2012, that will determine new program and budget priorities. But given what is known today of France’s commitments to ESA programs, the five-year funding plan is sufficient to meet all expected program requirements and retire the debt by 2015, Germain said.

The Research Ministry said France’s national space budget, which CNES officials refer to as “multilateral” because most of the programs are done in cooperation with at least one other nation, will increase by about 2 percent next year, to 761 million euros. Unlike the ESA budget, which has been frozen since 2005, the French national budget has risen by about 1.5 percent per year in the last five years. Germain said it will now be held at this level.

Announcing the five-year budget in Paris, French Research Minister Valérie Pécresse said CNES will also have management over 500 million euros in a French public bond issue intended to stimulate research. Half of that money will be spent for early work on a rocket to succeed the Ariane 5 in 15 years or so, with the funds to be made available to CNES by December.

The remaining half will be spent on “innovative satellites,” and two candidate missions have been identified.

One is an ocean-altimetry mission, called SWOT — Surface Water Ocean Topography — to be developed with NASA as a continuation of the two agencies’ 20-year partnership that has built the Topex-Poseidon and the Jason series of altimetry spacecraft.

The other is a joint investment with Germany’s space agency, DLR, in an environmental satellite called Merlin that would measure methane, one of the principal greenhouse gases. Pécresse said she would fight on behalf of both projects during final negotiations on how the bond issue proceeds will be spent.

Germain said CNES believes that the 250 million-euro budget should be enough to permit both satellites to be built.

Pécresse said she would also back a small Ka-band satellite to provide broadband connections to French rural areas, a project that also is vying for backing as part of a separate slice of the bond issue, also valued at 250 million euros, that is reserved for projects to expand the reach of broadband in France.

Several projects proposed by industry and by local governments are competing alongside the Ka-band satellite for these funds, and the government is not expected to decide the issue until 2011. In France as in other nations, including the United States, the advantages of broadband satellites are often set aside in favor of projects that create visible local jobs, such as laying fiber cable.

Pécresse said the five-year CNES budget includes proposals that resulted from a critical evaluation by the Research and Higher Education Evaluation Agency, AERES. The 20-page AERES report, which was published Oct. 26, gives a generally positive review of CNES’s direction while suggesting minor course corrections. One proposal is that CNES should be more active in stimulating a consolidation of small companies whose financial viability is highly dependent on a few government contracts, and whose product portfolios include technologies deemed a high priority.

Another area highlighted is how CNES treats intellectual property developed within its walls or as a result of contracts it manages with industry. Filing and maintaining patents and proprietary software costs CNES about 1.2 million euros per year.

In 2010, for the first time, the agency will generate more revenue in license fees than it costs to generate and protect patents, CNES President Yannick d’Escatha said in a letter responding to the AERES report and attached as an annex to it.

Direct licensing revenue will total about 700,000 euros in 2010, d’Escatha said. To this is added between 2 million and 2.5 million euros in annual concession fees from Spot Image of Toulouse, France, which uses the CNES-financed Spot 5 satellite.

Germain said CNES two years ago adopted a policy in which it shares, on an equal basis, in the licensing fees from patents developed from contracts done with CNES financing. He said the agency in recent years has asked its engineers to be more cognizant of potential intellectual property issues, with the result that CNES this year will file for 30 to 40 patents, compared with around 15 per year before 2005.

For the five-year period covered by the budget contract, Germain said, the agency’s goal is to average 25 patents per year.