After a two-year debate sparked by the emergence of low-cost competition, European space nations tomorrow are likely to back plans to build a new rocket, the Ariane 6, sources said.
Intended to be ready for 2020, the rocket is to replace the Ariane 5, taking its place alongside the lightweight Vega and Russia’s veteran Soyuz at the European Space Agency (ESA) base in Kourou, French Guiana.
A medium to heavy launcher that traces its roots to 1985, the Ariane 5 has 62 successful operations to its name and accounts for more than half of the world’s commercial launch market.
According to ESA, it has generated “direct economic benefits” in Europe of 50 billion euros (US$62.24 billion).
However, the workhorse of space also carries hefty costs — and now finds itself flanked by nimble US commercial competitors such as SpaceX.
With smaller launchers, these rivals are well-placed to exploit a fast-growing market for lighter, electric-propulsion telecom satellites.
What to do about the Ariane 5 has topped ministers’ agendas since last year, creating tensions between France and Germany, two of ESA’s pillars.
However, there should be a happy end tomorrow at the meeting in Luxembourg, officials said.
Its successor, Ariane 6, is expected to get a green light for startup costs estimated at 3.8 billion euros.
All told, the meeting is expected to open the way to 8 billion euros — 800 million euros annually over 10 years — to fund the agency’s launchers and their infrastructure.
“A big debate has taken place about this project and we are convinced that it is a good project,” German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said in Paris on Thursday.
The meeting culminates months of effort to find a compromise.
Germany had pushed for an intermediate model, the Ariane 5 ME, for “Midlife Evolution.”
A tweaked version of the 5, it would be ready by 2017 and yield early savings in operational costs.
France had lobbied for a transition to the Ariane 6, which would take flight from around 2021 or 2022. France said that the ME would drain crucial resources and lead to duplicated effort and probable holdups.
What emerges is a compromise whereby the Ariane 6 is to incorporate features from the ME and other projects.
It is to culminate in two versions — two-booster and four-booster designs — able to take between five and 10 tonnes into orbit.
It is to include a solid rocket motor, the P120C, which is being designed as an upgrade for ESA’s Vega launcher, as well as a strap-on booster.
The wrangle has been marked in part by differences on engineering, driven by fears of cost overruns and delays when new technology is introduced into the high-risk environment of space.
However, another undercurrent was how to share out the bounty within Europe’s space industry.
In return for Germany’s climbdown on the ME — and for boosting its annual contribution to Ariane 6 from 115 million to 175 million euros — France and Italy are expected to beef up contributions to the International Space Station.
ESA wants ministers to approve a three-year, 820 million euro budget for the manned outpost in space.
“For the first time, there is a shared technical solution among space agencies and industrial corporations, with Airbus Defense and Space, the satellite operator Arianespace and customers such as Eutelsat the most closely involved,” French Minister for Higher Education and Research Genevieve Fioraso told reporters.
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