PARIS — French Prime Minister Francois Fillon has reasserted his belief that operating Russia’s medium-lift Soyuz rocket at Europe’s equatorial spaceport will complement Europe’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket without competing with it.

Fillon, who as French space minister in July 1996 was instrumental in the creation of a Franco-Russian joint venture to commercialize Soyuz launches from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, said importing Soyuz to Europe’s Guiana Space Center launch base was envisaged from the start.

The joint venture, called Starsem, has since conducted 22 missions from the Baikonur base, mainly for scientific and Earth observation satellites and, in low Earth orbit, commercial telecommunications spacecraft.

Bringing Soyuz to the European spaceport will increase its presence on the commercial market. From the equatorial site, the Soyuz-Fregat rocket will be able to lift a 3,000-kilogram telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit. Its first launch from the European site is planned for October.

In an interview appearing in CNESMag, the magazine of the French space agency, CNES, published May 9, Fillon acknowledged concerns in industry that Soyuz, depending on how it was priced by Europe’s Arianespace commercial launch consortium, would present a threat to Ariane 5.

The Ariane 5 rocket’s principal business is carrying two telecommunications satellites at a time into geostationary transfer orbit. In practice, this usually means a larger satellite weighing close to 6,000 kilograms and a smaller one weighing just under 3,000 kilograms. For owners of small satellites, Soyuz thus provides an option that, for some, presents advantages over Ariane 5. Riding as a solo passenger on a rocket removes the need to coordinate launch dates with a larger co-passenger.

Despite this, Fillon said he is convinced Soyuz does not present a competitive threat to Ariane 5.

“I believe their complementarity is an asset for Europe’s space program,” he said.

A report prepared at Fillon’s direction in May 2009 nonetheless suggested that France and Europe begin work on a post-Ariane 5 rocket that would be modular in nature and capable of launching one at a time satellites weighing anywhere from 3,000 kilograms to 6,000 kilograms or more.

The French government recently agreed to spend about 250 million euros ($362 million) in French public bond monies to begin design of a next-generation vehicle. Early indications are that it will follow the suggestions of the Fillon report and focus on a vehicle geared to launching a broad range of satellites as solo passengers.

Another 250 million euros in bond funds will be used to develop scientific and Earth observation satellites.

Fillon said France’s decision to invest 500 million euros in space research at time of heavy pressure on government spending “has no equivalent in Europe.”



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