French Panel Urges CNES To Sell Its Arianespace Shares

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  Space News Business

French Panel Urges CNES To Sell Its Arianespace Shares

By PETER B. de SELDING
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 08 February 2007
11:01 am ET



PARIS – A French government body that is crafting a law to govern space activities is proposing that the French space agency, CNES, divest its ownership stake in the Arianespace launch consortium and rethink its commercial offer to provide orbit-raising services for satellite owners.

 

The French Conseil d’Etat, in a draft law designed to organize French space activities, is giving CNES a formal, regulatory role and is therefore concerned that, as a regulator, the space agency should not also have interests in commercial activities such as orbit-raising services.

 

CNES has long cultivated an expertise in what is known as launch and early orbit phase operations, a period typically lasting several weeks from the moment a satellite is placed in its parking orbit to its arrival in its final operating position. Once this period ends, the satellite is handed over to its owner for routine operations. CNES owns minority stakes in the Arianespace launch consortium and in Spot Image, a company that markets Earth observation satellite data. The space agency has been trying for more than a year to find a buyer for its Arianespace stake but has been unable to come to terms with the industrial rocket-component builders that make up most of Arianespace’s shareholder group.

 

“We follow the government’s advice on these matters and we have been given the freedom to negotiate a sale of the Arianespace holding,” one CNES official said. “But up to now, the prospective industrial buyers have told us they are unwilling to pay our minimum price. If the government now wants us to transfer the shares to some other government body, or to anyone else – we have no problem with that.”

 

CNES has developed an expertise in managing satellites of all types from the time they separate from their launch vehicle until they reach their final orbital destinations. In recent years, several private-sector companies have developed the same expertise and now compete with CNES for commercial contracts.

 

Julien Boucher, a staff member of the Conseil d’Etat involved in crafting the new space law, said Jan. 31 that the law’s authors agreed that the Arianespace shareholding and the orbit-raising activities are incompatible with CNES’s role as regulator of activities at
Europe
‘s
Guiana
Space
Center
launch site and other duties CNES will assume.

 

At a Jan. 31 conference here to discuss the new space law, representatives of satellite operators, insurance brokers, satellite and launch-service providers and the French military all said the new law would place space operations in France on a firmer and clearer legal footing.

 

But they also urged lawmakers not to place fresh constraints on the space industry that would undermine the French space industry’s competitiveness.

 

Yves Blanc, director of strategy at Eutelsat Communications, the Paris-based satellite-fleet operator, said CNES should be independent as a regulator but cannot be fully independent if it owns substantial shares of Arianespace and seeks to generate revenues from an orbit-raising business.

 

A representative of the European Commission, the executive arm of the 27-nation European Union, warned French lawmakers not to craft a legal regime that would be in conflict with other space laws in
Europe
.

 

Martine Diss, a member of the European Commission’s Space Policy and Coordination Unit, declined to say whether the French law will complicate efforts to harmonize European space regulations. “There is a risk that a diversification of law could undermine Europeanization of space activities,” Diss said, adding that the commission will reserve judgment on the French law until it is made formal.

 

The Conseil d’Etat made clear that the proposed law will not extend to regulating the uses of space technology. But that did not stop Adm. Philippe Arnould, a member of the French joint defense staff, from voicing French military concerns about the dissemination of space-based information.

 

Arnould said the proliferation of high-resolution satellite imagery and hardware permitting the piracy or jamming of satellite signals ultimately should be regulated – if not by law then by a common understanding among space powers.

 

In one of the first public French statements on the Chinese anti-satellite test Jan. 11, in which
China
used a ground-based missile to destroy a retired Chinese weather satellite, Arnould said he is concerned that space might become lawless area.

 

Arnould said the Chinese test should be the catalyst for a debate in
France
and
Europe
on the development of a European space-surveillance system and anti-missile capability.

 

One French defense official said
France
also would like to reach agreements with the
United States
to limit the amount of information the U.S. Defense Department releases on the locations of satellites in orbit.

 

“It’s our understanding that the
U.S.
and
Russia
have an agreement that neither will release data showing the position of their sensitive assets,” this official said. “We would like to come to a similar agreement with the
United States
. As things stand now, any sophisticated analyst of publicly available
U.S.
[satellite location] data can figure out where our Helios satellites are. We’d prefer that this information not be publicized.”

 

Helios is
France
‘s optical satellite reconnaissance system.