Germany Wants Answers on Ariane 5 Successor

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BREMEN, Germany — Germany will refuse to endorse a next-generation launch vehicle in Europe until a French-German working group delivers clear recommendations on the vehicle’s mission profile, according to the head of the German space agency, DLR.

Johann-Dietrich Woerner made no secret of the fact that industrial policy is behind DLR’s insistence that Europe finance a new upper stage for the current Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket before considering a next-generation vehicle. Germany likely would have the lead industrial role in the upper-stage development effort.

Called Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution, or ME, the new upper stage would use the restartable Vinci engine that is already being tested under a European Space Agency (ESA) development program approved in 2008. Completing the stage would require perhaps 1.5 billion euros ($1.9 billion) in fresh investment from ESA member governments, which will meet in mid-2012 to review the agency’s budget and spending priorities.

Financially stressed European governments may be tempted to scrap the ME stage in favor of a direct investment in a next-generation rocket that, in principle, would be ready for service around 2025. Whether this new vehicle would use the Vinci-powered ME stage is uncertain. The ME stage could be ready by around 2018.

The French government has announced plans to invest 250 million euros this year to start work on an Ariane 5 successor vehicle as part of an economic stimulus package. Early indications point to a modular vehicle capable of launching single satellites weighing between 2,000 and 8,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, as well as launching Europe’s defense and scientific satellites into other orbits.

This design would replace both the current Ariane 5 and the European version of Russia’s medium-lift Soyuz rocket, which is being introduced at Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport late this year or early in 2011.

Woerner said he had no opposition to France studying future rocket configurations. But the Ariane 5 ME upper stage, likely to feature a German prime contractor, is where DLR wants to put its money.

Woerner said his opposition to a post-Ariane 5 rocket in the near term is also based on the fact that there are too many mission scenarios being tossed around for it.

“Does the vehicle need to be competitive on the commercial market? If it does, then it could be a smaller vehicle, in which case it might have difficulty launching ATV,” Woerner said July 19, referring to the 19,000-kilogram Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo carrier, for which Bremen-based Astrium Space Transportation is prime contractor. The ATV is designed to carry supplies to the international space station but may evolve into a vehicle with broader space exploration potential.

In an interview here during the biennial assembly of the Committee on Space Research (Cospar), Woerner said ESA, which has begun studies of a vehicle that resembles the French design, should hold off on expressing an opinion for now. “We need to avoid putting ESA in a position of solving national problems,” Woerner said. The choice of the post-Ariane 5 rocket, he said, “is a political decision” in addition to one based on engineering criteria.

A French-German working group looking at design options for a post-Ariane 5 rocket is expected to submit its report by the end of the year, Woerner said.

ESA’s major contributors have carved out specialties for themselves over the years. Any future rocket design will affect work-share distributions, particularly among France, Germany and Italy.

Italian authorities are readying proposals to upgrade Italy’s small Vega rocket — likely to debut in 2011 — to replace Soyuz from the light end, even as the French designs would replace the Russian vehicle from the heavy end.

Woerner said a central question is how the Arianespace commercial launch consortium will evolve. The Evry, France-based company will have to live without an annual European support payment of nearly 200 million euros, called European Guaranteed Access to Space, or EGAS, which phases out in 2010.

Whether Arianespace can be profitable without direct government aid remains to be seen, Woerner said. “We were told that this enterprise could be profitable at a launch rate of seven Ariane 5 vehicles per year, but they are not,” Woerner said.

He said in the future, European governments may consider paying Arianespace a fixed annual fee that would cover the launches of European government satellites plus a premium that could be used to cover any losses incurred as the company seeks commercial business.

“They will still need financial support to be competitive with the launchers of other nations,” Woerner said.

One industry official whose company is a major Ariane 5 contractor agreed with Woerner’s assessment, saying Arianespace is still not profitable, even at seven Ariane 5 launches per year, without direct government aid given the political requirement to spread work among many ESA member countries.