TOULOUSE, France — The new French government is determined to maintain the viability of the Ariane rocket system by investing in an upgrade or a successor to the rocket this year despite Europe’s sovereign debt crisis, French Research Minister Genevieve Fioraso said.
In a written statement delivered to the Toulouse Space Show held here June 25-28, Fioraso said maintaining Europe’s independent access to space is an “absolute necessity.”
Fioraso will join other ministers from the 19-nation European Space Agency () in November to set budget and program priorities for the coming years.
A French-German working group is expected to deliver by July 2 an analysis of the costs and risks associated with the choice of an Ariane 5 upgrade or the longer-term alternative of a completely new rocket better adapted to today’s markets.
But while the Ariane 5 issue will be one of the most consequential to be addressed by the ministers, it is far from the only one.
Others include Europe’s ExoMars mission, featuring Russia-provided launches in 2016 and 2018, and a three- or four-year Earth observation package for new environmental satellites.
The French position on both programs, each of which is seeking $1.6 billion or more of backing from ESA governments, has been a subject of speculation.
In a briefing with reporters here, Yannick d’Escatha, president of the French space agency, CNES, clarified his agency’s position on both ExoMars and what ESA calls its Earth Observation Envelope Program.
D’Escatha said that despite an ESA-appointed outside examination of ExoMars that concluded the program is on track, CNES believes that there is too little time to assemble the 2016 mission. The launch, aboard a Russian Proton rocket in January or March of that year, would carry a lander and a telecommunications orbiter to Mars.
Two years later, another Russian Proton would bring a European rover as well as a Euro-Russian landing module to Mars.
D’Escatha said he regrets that ESA did not support a CNES proposal that ExoMars be combined into a single mission for launch in 2018, which he said would have carried about the same payload but with less risk because of the extra two years of work.
A consolidated mission would also reduce the ExoMars budget to below 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) from the current estimated budget of 1.2 billion euros, d’Escatha said. ESA governments have been unable to raise more than 850 million euros for ExoMars up to now.
CNES also is concerned about ESA’s proposal to take 120 million euros set aside to launch ESA’s Juice mission to Jupiter in 2022 aboard an Ariane 5 rocket, and use that money to fund ExoMars. Russia has been asked to donate a Proton launcher for that mission, too, as part of a cooperative Jupiter exploration program.
“The Juice launch is not until 2022,” d’Escatha said. “If we take the money for the launch from the budget and use it for ExoMars, we will need the money much sooner, and that causes problems for the science program. This is an issue.”
France has not protested in recent months as ESA extends ExoMars’ funding slices. The latest slice, to carry the program’s work to the end of the year, is valued at 80 million euros and means that when ESA ministers evaluate the program in November, they will already have spent 480 million euros on it.
“I really don’t know what will happen in November,” d’Escatha said of the ExoMars decision. He said France does not want to be pressured to support the program simply because it has swallowed too much money to be stopped.
The Earth Observation Envelope Program has been ESA’s key funding platform for environmental satellites outside of ESA’s share in meteorological satellites developed with the Eumetsat organization of Darmstadt, Germany.
ESA officials had initially proposed a five-year program with a budget of 1.9 billion euros. Numerous governments, including France, said they could not make that commitment. More recently, ESA proposed a four-year program valued at 1.6 billion euros, and several nations resisted that as well.
Two officials said CNES had gone so far as to ask ESA to pencil in the French contribution, which normally would be at least 14 percent, at zero.
D’Escatha said CNES never said it would withhold all support for this program, which launches ESA’s Explorer Earth observation satellites.
What CNES did relay to ESA, he said, is that if the multiyear program is too big, it may end up unable to fund any satellites because of the financial stresses at several ESA governments.
A better choice, he said, would be for ESA to target several specific missions that its member governments clearly support, and make those the center of the program rather than asking for a large budget with no indication of what will be in it.