PARIS — The French space agency, CNES, is counting on an unforeseen cash injection of up to $1 billion from France’s economic stimulus package in the coming weeks to enable it to start programs that otherwise would not be funded even as it finances and reduces its debt to the European Space Agency (), CNES officials said Feb. 11.
France’s planned government bond issue, the details of which are expected to be confirmed by the French parliament by March, sets aside up to 750 million euros ($1.03 billion) for space-related programs.
The money is divided into two parts. A line reserved for space programs totaling 500 million euros appears to be intended for CNES-led projects, with the start of work on a next-generation launch vehicle to succeed today’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket all but certain to be included. This Ariane 6 preparatory work will be presented to the 18-nation ESA in 2011 or 2012 as part of an ESA-run program to develop the vehicle.
In addition to the Ariane 6 investment, this line devoted to space programs will have enough left over to fund work on one or more of the following missions that CNES has set as priorities:
- A carbon dioxide-monitoring satellite, called Microcarb.
- Support, either in co-financing of hardware or in the advance purchase of capacity, of the Spot 6 and Spot 7 commercial Earth observation satellites under construction by Astrium Satellites.
- A 25 percent stake in the NASA-led Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT) ocean-altimetry satellite.
- A satellite, called CHARME, to monitor atmospheric methane and to be built with Germany.
A second funding line of 250 million euros is devoted to spreading broadband access to regions of France outside current terrestrial-broadband coverage. CNES has proposed a Ka-band satellite called Megasat to provide low-cost broadband access.
In a Feb. 11 presentation of the agency’s budget plans here, CNES President Yannick d’Escatha declined to speculate on which of these programs might be selected, and for what amount of funding. He said some of them, including the participation in NASA’s SWOT mission and the French-German Charme satellite, will be supported by CNES’s planned operating budget even if they are not selected for the government bond funds.
CNES Financial Director Laurent Germain said the agency originally had proposed 1.2 billion euros worth of programs for the bond issue, a sum that included a 500-million-euro, two-satellite astronomy mission called Simbol-X that also would have tested formation-flying techniques.
Under a multiyear guarantee from the French government, CNES’s budget since 2005 has been divided into two categories.
The agency’s contributions to ESA, in which France remains the biggest financial backer, have been frozen at 685 million euros per year, with no increase for inflation. That will remain the case for 2010. But in 2011, when the new five-year budget guarantee takes effect, CNES’s ESA spending will increase by 12.4 percent, to 770 million euros.
D’Escatha said the ESA budget after 2011 will be adjusted for inflation. This level of spending, he said, is sufficient to enable CNES to pay off its debt to ESA by 2015.
CNES incurred substantial debt to ESA because of unexpected spending to return the Ariane 5 vehicle to flight following a failure in 2002. CNES finances 50 percent of Ariane 5 development at ESA.
The exceptional spending needed to revalidate the vehicle’s design, coupled with the later freeze on ESA spending at CNES, put the French agency into debt that has vacillated since then. As of January 2010, CNES’s debt to ESA stood at 325 million euros, Germain said.
CNES has spent less than its budget since 2005 on general operating costs and certain other charges, and has reduced its full-time head count. But it has used these savings, totaling some 119 million euros, to invest in its existing programs, including launch vehicles, Earth observation and space science.
The second category of spending at CNES is for its own national missions and missions, such as SWOT with NASA, carried out bilaterally outside the ESA framework. This budget has been allowed to increase by 1.5 percent a year — again with no adjustment for inflation — and totals 749 million euros in 2010.
D’Escatha said CNES’s 2011-2015 budget for the non-ESA spending will be set by July following negotiations with French government authorities.