Europe's Cosmic Agreement: European Space Agency Takes a Step into the Future

The European Space Agency has a new budget and member states have also set aside a bitter debate over the future of the Ariane rocket, the program's commercial workhorse. All sides are happy -- and Russia may even benefit from the deal.

Photo Gallery: Europe's Cosmic Agreement Photos
DPA / CNES

Just one week ago, Europe's space exploration efforts took a significant hit. With several countries in the European Union facing the need to scale back spending in the face of the euro crisis, gathering funding for a proposed landing on the south pole of the moon had proven difficult. And last Friday, with Great Britain, Spain and Italy declining to commit, Germany also backed out. The so-called "Lunar Lander" project came to an end.

On Tuesday night in Naples, however, the European Space Agency (ESA) received a boost. Following difficult minister-level negotiations at the ESA summit, an agreement was reached on the agency's future, guaranteeing both a further development of the Ariane rocket as well as ongoing European involvement in the International Space Station (ISS). As part of that involvement, ESA is to cooperate with NASA on the construction of the Orion capsule to transport both people and goods to and from the ISS.

The step forward had by no means been assured in the run-up to the meeting. European budgets are overstretched as it is and many worried that the Continent's space program would suffer. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, however, representatives from the 20 ESA member states passed a budget of €10 billion ($12.8 billion) for the next three years, on par with the budget passed four years ago. ESA General Director Jean-Jacques Dordain called the agreement a "great success."

In addition to finances, however, the meeting focused on ironing out differences between competing German and French visions for the future of the Ariane rocket, ESA's reliable workhorse for propelling satellites and other cargo into space.

More Competitive

Germany had wanted to continue focusing on a stronger new version of the existing Ariane 5, known as the Ariane 5 ME ("Midlife Evolution"), as had been agreed to in 2008. The upgraded rocket has the advantage of being able to carry a 20 percent larger payload into orbit. The French, meanwhile, preferred concentrating on the next generation Ariane 6. While the new rocket could have a smaller payload capacity, it is hoped that it will be more competitive in the growing commercial market and will not require the €120 million in annual subsidies necessary to support the Ariane 5.

In the end, both countries got what they wanted. The development of the Ariane 5 ME will continue, good news for the Bochum-based aerospace company Astrium, which manufactures stages for the rocket. And the Ariane 6 project will also move forward, though further research must be conducted before production can begin. The hope is for a maiden journey in 2021 or 2022, according to French Research Minister Geneviève Fioraso. Much of the research and development for that project is to take place in France.

The Berlin-Paris compromise on the Ariane also cleared the way for European involvement in NASA's Orion project. The US space agency had expressed interest in cooperation due to its wish to incorporate elements of the unmanned European cargo vehicle ATV, but France had been skeptical and the funding for the added project had been murky.

To Mars with Russia

On Tuesday night, however, France withdrew its opposition. Furthermore, Britain's previously announced intention to increase its ESA funding by 30 percent over the next five years -- including €20 million for the Orion project -- helped shore up the financing. Britain will now provide some €300 million a year to the ESA, far below the German total contribution of €2.7 billion over the last four years, but a welcome increase over previous funding rounds.

The Naples summit also had one final success to celebrate. Back in February, NASA had backed out of a joint mission, known as ExoMars, to send a vehicle to collect samples from the atmosphere of Mars in 2016 and a surface exploratory vehicle onto the planet in 2018. Begun in 2005, some €400 million had already been invested in the mission. Now, ESA has a new partner. On Wednesday, it was reported that Russia is to join forces with the Europeans.

With reporting by Christoph Seidler in Naples

cgh -- with wire reports

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1. About your article on the ESA's decision on the Ariane 5.
rgclark 11/24/2012
I’m sure EADS Astrium is happy because of the amount of money they will make on the plan. But this does not mean it is the best plan for the european space program. What this decision does is guarantee that soon Elon Musk will be right: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk: Europe’s rocket ‘has no chance’. By Jonathan Amos Science correspondent, BBC News 19 November 2012 Last updated at 10:47 http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20389148 But the ESA could have a cost competitive rocket by developing the Ariane 6 with multiple Vulcain engines. This would only be a few hundred million dollar development rather than the multi-billion dollar development needed to develop a single large engine on the core stage. I’ve been informed by several different people within ESA or Arianespace that studies on the multi-engine approach have been done but they have not been released to the public. The ESA claims using multiple engines on a stage is not cost effective. If they really believe that why are these studies not released publicly? The real situation is analogous to that of NASA with regard to the studies showing just using propellant depots and currently existing launchers could accomplish the goals of the SLS while saving billions. In that case the studies were suppressed because NASA, or the politicians holding the purse strings, was committed to a solution that would provide the most money to the entrenched US space providers. Its the same type of scenario here. The real shame of it is that the multi-engine approach would also provide Europe with an independent manned spaceflight capability. But the European public will never know of it because those studies showing it is doable will be kept secret. Bob Clark
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