PARIS — The French government’s newly released space strategy document says the European Union ultimately should take over the European Space Agency () and should help finance Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport, which is on French territory.
The document urges European nations to confront the fact that the current Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket was designed to thrive in global market conditions that are fast becoming obsolete with the arrival of new competitors from China, India and the United States.
The 20-page document, released March 22 by French Research Minister Laurent Wauquiez, is a broad updating of the priorities of Europe’s biggest space power at a time when France is at risk of being eclipsed by Germany as the largest contributor to the 19-nation ESA. The document is mainly a reiteration of longstanding French positions and does not stake out positions that might be overturned by a new administration following French presidential elections in May.
French officials have been saying for several years that the Guiana Space Center, located in French Guiana on South America’s northeast coast, should be classified as “critical infrastructure” in the European Union’s sense of the term, and thus be made eligible for European Union financial support.
Currently the spaceport, whose activities are increasing with the arrival of the small-class Vega and medium-class Soyuz rockets operating alongside the heavy-lift Ariane 5 vehicle, is financed two-thirds by France and one-third by the other members of ESA.
The respective roles of ESA and the European Union’s (EU) executive commission have not been settled, especially since the 27-nation EU and ESA do not have identical memberships. But the two bodies appear to have arrived at an understanding in which the EU Commission finances its space programs using ESA as technical manager and contract-oversight authority.
“If the integration of ESA into the EU is a long-term objective, it will only occur in stages,” the document says, adding that in the short term, the EU should delegate to ESA the role of contracting authority, leaving to the space agency decisions on how each program might be managed.
ESA operates according to a geographic return rule, under which nations participating in ESA programs are guaranteed that 90 percent of their investments will return to their territories in the form of industrial contracts with the agency.
The EU Commission awards contracts based in principle on value-for-money considerations, with a strong preference for competitive bidding.
The French policy document proposes that ESA further relax its geographic return rules — a development that would favor France’s dominant industrial base — while calling for the EU Commission to dilute its competition requirement in areas like space, where there may be only one viable European provider.
The EU Commission has already had to accept that fact in the Galileo satellite navigation program, agreeing to allow only thelaunch consortium of Evry, France, to bid for the launch of the Galileo constellation. Arianespace is Europe’s only launch services provider.
On the topic of Galileo, the policy document restates France’s position that the constellation should include the full complement of 30 satellites plus spares. The commission has ordered 26 satellites so far, including four that were originally intended for system validation, because of program cost overruns.
ESA governments are scheduled to meet in November in Italy to set their space policy goals and budgets for the coming years.
Among the topics will be whether to complete development of a new Ariane 5 upper stage to increase Ariane 5’s payload-carrying capacity by 20 percent — to 12,000 kilograms of satellite payload into geostationary transfer orbit — and to give the rocket a reignition capability to place payloads into different orbits on the same launch. Reignition would also facilitate deorbiting the Ariane 5 upper stage at mission completion.
A competing proposal, which appears to have the backing of the French government, would have ESA proceed directly to the development of an Ariane 5 successor vehicle that would be economically viable launching only one satellite at a time — the Ariane 5 is designed to carry two geostationary-orbiting satellites at a time — and having a lower profile in the global commercial launch market.
As described by French authorities, the vehicle would have a modular design to launch satellites weighing between 3,000 and 8,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, the destination of most telecommunications satellites.
To be introduced around 2025 or earlier, the new rocket ultimately would replace the Ariane 5 and the Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket now launched from the Guiana Space Center.
The French strategy document does not take a clear position between the enhanced Ariane 5 — called Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution — and the Ariane 5 successor vehicle.
But it nonetheless lays out the argument that Ariane 5, despite its successes — as of March 2012 the vehicle had flown 47 times consecutively without a failure and maintained a nearly 50 percent share of the commercial market — needs to be overhauled.
Ariane 5 is economically viable when it serves European government demand while capturing enough of the commercial market to guarantee the minimum launch frequency needed to maintain technical viability and limit unit costs, the document says.
But the U.S. dollar’s weakness relative to the euro, and the arrival of new competitors from China, India and the United States — Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon 9 is mentioned by name — means the priority now must be on reducing Ariane’s cost, according to the document.
France has already agreed to invest some 250 million euros ($330) in a public bond issue for post-Ariane 5 studies.