BORDEAUX, FRANCE — It has been 25 years since European governments last made a major decision on the direction of the Ariane rocket system. This fall they may take the next step.

Ministers from the 19-nation European Space Agency (ESA) are scheduled to meet in late November in Caserta, Italy, to set their budget and program priorities for the coming years.

Every aspect of ESA’s work — including telecommunications, Earth observation, exploration and manned flight, navigation and meteorology — will be tackled, but how to proceed with Ariane may have the most long-term impact.

Battling for support from the ministers are two ideas. Both have their defenders and detractors among industrial rocket-component builders, government agencies and government satellite system designers.

ESA and European government officials say that whichever idea is selected, it must lead to a rocket that does not need government financial support for its operations once its development is completed.

Ariane 5 has been operated without a failure since late 2002 and has logged 48 consecutive successes. It has maintained a 40-50 percent share of the commercial satellite launch market during this period.

But the vehicle still requires some 100 million euros ($130 million) per year in government cash contributions to permit the Arianespace launch consortium to reach the financial break-even point.

“We cannot provide support for exploitation costs indefinitely,” ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said here May 7 at the Space Propulsion 2012 conference, organized by the French 3AF association. “This is key. The question is, how can we reach that objective?”

The first development option, which ESA governments began funding at their last ministerial conference in 2008, is called Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution, or Ariane 5 ME.

Ariane 5 ME features the new Vinci restartable upper-stage engine, next-generation avionics, a 20-meter-long rocket fairing and an upgraded vehicle equipment bay. Its goal: to increase the payload-carrying power of the current Ariane 5 heavy-lift vehicle by about 20 percent, enabling it to carry two satellites weighing a combined 11,000 kilograms into the geostationary transfer orbit that is the destination of most telecommunications satellites.

Ariane 5 ME backers have pledged that the upgraded vehicle would cost no more to build than the current Ariane 5 ECA, and that it would be ready for flight starting in 2017.

The competing idea that ESA ministers will review is a next-generation vehicle, sometimes called Ariane 6. Its focus is keeping operating costs down with a modular vehicle tailored to adapt to different market conditions.

Cryogenic- and solid-propellant combinations for Ariane 6 — all using existing facilities and based on existing technologies — are being considered.

The design requirements are that the rocket be capable of launching, one at a time, satellites weighing between 2,000 and 6,500 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, with an expansion capability to 8,000 kilograms.

Michel Eymard, director of launchers at the French space agency, CNES, said Ariane 6 also must be able to reach financial break-even with as few as six launches in a given year.

Addressing the conference May 7, Eymard said CNES’s current thinking is that Ariane 6 would launch between six and 14 times per year, with an average year featuring nine liftoffs — or the equivalent of 4.5 Ariane 5 launch campaigns. Ariane 5 typically has been launching five or six times a year; this year the schedule calls for seven launches.

Ariane 6 is designed to cost 30-40 percent less to build and launch than Ariane 5. It would require no government financial support for operations once development is completed. The new vehicle would be operational in 2020.

CNES is a principal shareholder in Arianespace and has been the source of at least half the money ESA has spent on the successive Ariane variants for more than 30 years. The French government has allocated about 200 million euros in public bond monies to study Ariane 6 technologies.

Where CNES and the French government stand on the issue of Ariane 5 ME or Ariane 6 is not clear. Eymard said the decision is being made based on three criteria. Rocket economics is 43 percent of the total, he said. The vehicle’s technical performance is weighted at 30 percent, and industrial concerns — who could build what pieces to win ESA support — accounts for the remaining 27 percent of the decision.

The most vocal detractors of Ariane 6 have been officials from Astrium Space Transportation, the Ariane 5 prime contractor; and the German government, whose industry is presumed to have more to gain from Ariane 5 ME than from Ariane 6.

Astrium Space Transportation officials say Ariane 6’s design and industry work-share distribution are insufficiently known to permit a go-ahead decision in November.

To sweeten the Ariane 5 ME proposal, Astrium Space Transportation officials have said Arianespace would no longer need annual ESA support payments for operating costs once the ME vehicle is operational. Whether the company and its contractors will be willing to commit, in writing, to this is unclear.

One Astrium Space Transportation official said further that a decision to go directly to Ariane 6 this year would require investments from European governments starting in 2013 that these governments may not be able to provide given Europe’s public-debt crisis.

Stefan Schlechtriem, director of the Institute of Space Propulsion at the German Aerospace Center, DLR, told the conference that most German officials are in favor of Ariane 5 ME. Schlechtriem oversees Germany’s Lampoldshausen rocket engine test facility, which may see more business with Ariane 5 ME than with Ariane 6.

Germany and France have created a bilateral working group in an attempt to forge a consensus on the Ariane 5 ME/Ariane 6 debate. This group is scheduled to deliver its conclusions by June 30.

Working on a parallel track, Dordain has asked European industry to come up with its own Ariane 6 proposals. ESA has sent out an invitation to tender and expects to contract with two competing consortia by June.

Dordain said the two consortia will be given one-year contracts but that he wants initial conclusions by September — in time to integrate them into ESA’s formal proposals for the November ministerial conference.

That is not much time, he admitted. “The calendar is tight but in my view we have no choice,” Dordain said. “If there is a chance to find a model where support for [operating costs] comes to an end, then I have to tell the member states.”



Affordability, Not Geographic Return, Key Criteria for Europe’s Next Rocket

SES Chief Prefers Modular Ariane 6 for Launch Flexibility

France Undecided on Ariane 5 Investment Question

Arianespace is Rethinking its Dual-Launch Strategy 

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