French Bond Issue To Fund Rocket, Satellite Projects

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PARIS — The French space agency, CNES, expects to award contracts valued at more than $900 million in September as part of a multibillion-dollar French government bond issue that has earmarked funds for work on a next-generation rocket, two Earth observation satellites and satellite-delivered broadband, a senior CNES official said June 4.

Marc Pircher, director of CNES’s Toulouse Space Center, said a total of 750 million euros ($915 million) will be divided evenly among the three project categories. A formal request for bids will be issued in July, Pircher said during a press briefing on the eve of the Toulouse Space Show, which begins June 7.

One-third of the funds will be spent on demonstrators and early design work on a next-generation launch vehicle to succeed today’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket. France is focusing on a modular rocket whose different versions would carry government satellites into low Earth orbit and commercial telecommunications satellites weighing up to 6,000 kilograms into geostationary-transfer orbit, one at a time.

According to current thinking, the vehicle could succeed both the Ariane 5 and the European version of Russia’s Soyuz vehicle. Designed to appeal first and foremost to European government customers, the vehicle program’s financial health would be much less dependent on the commercial launch market than today’s Ariane 5.

A second category of funds will be for two environmental satellites. A methane-measuring spacecraft, formerly called Charme and now known as Merlin, will be built jointly with Germany. France will be financing half the mission’s estimated 160 million euros in total costs.

The second environmental satellite, named SWOT, or Surface Water Ocean Topography, is a joint French-U.S. mission to follow on from the Topex-Poseidon and Jason series of ocean-altimetry satellites.

Pircher said CNES is ready to invest some 170 million euros in SWOT, which he said is equivalent to around 30 percent of the total mission cost. NASA has not yet confirmed SWOT as a mission. But Pircher said ocean altimetry remains a high priority for France and the early SWOT investment is intended both to maintain French expertise and to signal France’s commitment to NASA.

The final area of space-related investment for the French bond proceeds is to extend broadband access to regions in France that lack high-speed terrestrial links.

Pircher said some funds are likely to be spent on demonstration projects using the large all-Ka-band Ka-Sat satellite to be launched by fleet operator Eutelsat of Paris late this year.

Longer term, the broadband financing will be directed to technologies for future superfast broadband connections via satellite, and a small next-generation broadband satellite to be called Megasat.

Pircher said it has not been decided how much of this 250 million-euro envelope will be spent on near-term broadband penetration with Ka-Sat, and how much will be reserved to develop future, higher-speed broadband technologies.