Sarkozy: Satellite Operators Should Support European Launch Sector

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PARIS — French President Nicolas Sarkozy is proposing that telecommunications satellite operators help support Europe’s government-sponsored space infrastructure through “innovative financing” of facilities that are unprofitable but indispensable to the health of the satellite telecommunications sector.

“We create added value for the downstream sector,” Sarkozy said of government investment in launch vehicles such as Europe’s Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket. “I am thinking particularly of telecommunications. I certainly don’t want to constrain their development. But if they profit from an investment that we finance at 100 percent, can we not profit just a little bit from their financial creativity, through a spontaneous and generous contribution? Call it innovative financing, if you like.”

In a Dec. 14 space policy speech framed as a dialogue with the chairmen of Europe’s EADS aerospace conglomerate, which owns Ariane 5 prime contractor Astrium, and Safran, which builds Ariane rocket motors, Sarkozy said profitable telecommunications operators in France, Europe and the United States should be “called upon at one time or another to take part in the financing … of space activities.”

Sarkozy did not specify what kind of financial contribution might be made by telecommunications operators to support infrastructure including Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport, which is on French territory, and Europe’s launcher sector.

In a recent policy analysis by Europe’s Air and Space Academy, former European government and industry launch services managers proposed that satellite operators pay an annual fee of around 3 million euros for every satellite occupying a European-registered orbital slot. The money would be put into a fund to support Europe’s launch vehicle operator when that company reports operating losses.

Sarkozy said France has agreed to invest in a new upper stage for the current Ariane 5 rocket, and in an Ariane 5 successor vehicle, because the sector cannot survive without massive government support. He said even large companies with minority state ownership such as EADS and Safran cannot undertake this kind of project.

Sarkozy said France and Germany have agreed on supporting the new upper stage, a development program expected to cost more than 2 billion euros ($2.7 billion) that will be proposed to European Space Agency governments in mid-2012.

With France and Germany backing the Ariane 5 Midlife Extension program, it is all but certain to be approved. “Any other decision would be irresponsible,” he said.

Sarkozy announced an initial 82.5 million euros in contracts for studies of an Ariane 5 successor. This funding is the first tranche of a 250 million-euro investment in the next-generation vehicle being made as part of a French bond issue designed to support new technology.

Another 250 million euros of the bond issue will be used to support one or more of several broadband and Earth observation satellite projects now being reviewed.

Sarkozy said Europe needs to tighten its nonbinding policy that European governments buy European space products, and that newly powerful nations such as China, India and Brazil should be forced to open their markets in return for access to Europe’s market.

“If you are in the European space club, and you purchase elsewhere, how do you propose that we develop European industry?” Sarkozy asked.

“I have always admired the ability of Americans to think American, act American, even if at times that means forgetting others. This is not meant to be disagreeable. I admire it.”

The U.S. government forbids its satellites, civil or military, from being launched on non-U.S. rockets unless the satellite is part of a bilateral investment.