PARIS — The French government stands ready to endorse extending the operational life of the international space station to 2020 and beyond but is insisting on new ways of financing the work with its European partners, the head of the French space agency, CNES, said Jan. 26.

In a briefing here on CNES priorities for the coming year, CNES President Yannick d’Escatha did not spell out the mechanism France would like to see adopted to determine how much of the station’s annual operating charges each European nation would pay.

Among the members of the European Space Agency (ESA), France has been second only to Germany in its financing of the station’s assembly and initial operations. Germany, which remains committed to using the station as fully as possible now that it is built, had proposed spending 3.8 billion euros ($5.2 billion) between 2011 and 2020 for station work.

That figure would include Europe’s obligatory contribution to the station’s annual maintenance, as well as the cost of building and operating experiments at the station.


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France rejected that figure as too high, and the two nations, along with Italy and the other ESA governments taking part in the station, are now negotiating both a figure and a formula for payment.

“We all want to prolong the station’s operations to 2020 and most likely beyond that date,” d’Escatha said. “But we need to stop and think about a second phase of operations, and a change of parameters. For example, we obviously need to take into account the Falcon 9 Dragon launch.”

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., in December successfully demonstrated a space station supply carrier launched aboard the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., which like SpaceX is under contract to NASA for station resupply services, is planning the first flight of its Taurus 2 rocket and Cygnus carrier late this year.

If SpaceX and Orbital both demonstrate the ability to deliver cargo to the station, that will affect demand for Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), whose second flight to the orbital complex is scheduled for mid-February. Japan has successfully demonstrated its second cargo-delivery system, called the H-2A Transfer Vehicle. Russia has a much smaller, and well-tested, cargo carrier called Progress, which continues to visit the station several times each year.

ESA has budgeted operations for the station through 2012, and has asked its station contributors to decide on a financing formula through 2020 before ESA confirms to NASA and the other station partners that it is on board through at least 2020.

ESA governments are scheduled to meet in March to agree to a financial setup for the station’s use, thus clearing the way for Europe’s formal endorsement of the operational life extension. “The subject here is what vision we should have” for the station in an environment that is likely to change substantially in the coming decade, d’Escatha said.

While Germany has been closing the gap, France, through CNES, remains ESA’s biggest contributor and is increasing its payments to ESA by 10 percent, to some 755 million euros for 2011. It plans smaller increases for 2012 and 2013 as part of a five-year budget commitment CNES signed with the French government in October.

Thanks in part to contributions it receives from the French Defense Ministry, CNES also maintains a national space program, separate from its ESA contributions. This program, budgeted at 761 million euros in 2011, features French-only missions and missions performed bilaterally with other nations.

Among CNES’s priorities outside its ESA work are the French Pleiades high-resolution optical Earth observation satellites, to be launched in 2011 or 2012, and the four-satellite Elisa system for the French Defense Ministry, to test ways of eavesdropping on ground radars. The preceding quartet of eavesdropping spacecraft, called Essaim, were launched into geostationary transfer orbit in 2004 and de-orbited following their retirement in 2010.

A French government bond issue, now called Investments in the Future, is expected to deliver CNES an additional 500 million euros this year. Half of it will be to begin work on a next-generation launch vehicle to succeed the current heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket. The other half is expected to be used to pay for France’s 50 percent share of the Franco-German Merlin methane detection satellite, and for the French contribution to the U.S.-French Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite.

SWOT, a NASA-CNES mission, is intended to advance the state of the art in measuring ocean wave heights that has been the subject of 20 years of Franco-American work through the Topex-Poseidon and the Jason series of ocean-altimetry spacecraft.

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