Luxembourg, Dec 2: Members of the European Space Agency (ESA) were hammering out details on Tuesday of a 10-year rocket programme worth USD 10-billion with a new Ariane 6 launcher at its heart.
Sources at the talks in Luxembourg, gathering 20 European nations and Canada, said ministers were scrutinising financial aspects before giving the green light to a hard-fought deal. Intended to have a cheaper, more flexible design, the Ariane 6 will replace Ariane 5, a medium-to-heavy workhorse with 62 successful launches to its name.
It accounts for more than half of the world's commercial launch market. Despite its reliability, Ariane 5 comes with high operational costs that are a drain on ESA's budget at a time of belt-tightening.
"The proposal will give Europe a competitive, flexible Ariane from 2020," France's space minister Genevieve Fioraso said in a speech to ministers. Fioraso said Ariane 6 also "will respond to the rising threat of a spectacular breakthrough by new players who are weakening our autonomy in this area."
Nimble US commercial competitors such as SpaceX are competing to get into a satellite launch market whose demands have changed dramatically since Ariane 5 was first conceived nearly 30 years ago. Startup costs for the Ariane 6 are estimated at 3.8 billion euros.
All in all, the meeting is expected to agree to spending of eight billion euros, 800 million annually over 10 years to fund the agency'sfamily of launchers and their infrastructure, including a new launch pad at ESA's base at Kourou, French Guiana.
A replacement for the Ariane 5 has been a source of friction for the last two years, with France and Germany, ESA's two biggest contributors pushing alternative approaches. Germany argued that a new rocket would require so much time to develop that rivals could have grabbed a fat share of the satellite market by the time it was ready.
It argued for a modified version of the existing rocket, Ariane 5 ME, for Midlife Evolution which would be ready by 2017 and yield early operational savings. France had lobbied for a transition approach to introducing the Ariane 6 from about 2021 or 2022. It argued the ME would drain crucial resources and lead to duplicated effort and probable holdups.