PARIS — An agreement between three European countries could help secure short-term funding for launcher development, but have a greater long-term effect on how future projects are funded.
The French, German and Italian governments announced on November 22 that they had signed an agreement on “the future of the exploitation of launchers in Europe” intended, according to them, to strengthen the competitiveness of European vehicles while guaranteeing independent European access to space.
The agreement includes a timetable which, by June 2024, provides for the establishment of a new framework for the public financing of vehicles such as Ariane 6 and Vega C. This includes “a cost reduction incentive mechanism ” with financing ” commensurate with commercial financing “. the risks taken” and the ability to achieve price targets.
The agreement also approves that new small launchers being developed by several European companies can compete for European Space Agency missions. This is seen as a priority for Germany in particular, which has supported the development of small commercial launchers.
The agreement coincides with the ongoing ESA ministerial meeting where member states will allocate funds for projects, including the development of launchers. ESA is seeking just over 3 billion euros ($3.1 billion) for space transportation as a whole, including 600 million euros for an Ariane 6 “transition program” as the long-delayed rocket , whose first flight slipped at least in late 2023, between service.
The program secured two-thirds of its funding for the ministerial meeting, but faced a shortfall of €195 million at the start of the meeting. ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher, speaking to reporters at the end of the first day of the November 22 ministerial council meeting, said he was optimistic that the agreement announced by France, l Germany and Italy would help close this gap.
“It was quite important because this political understanding and agreement unlocks further discussions which then influence subscriptions,” he said. “It was quite important and meaningful, and opened the door for discussion later.”
However, as of the end of November 22, this funding gap had not yet been closed, according to a source close to the negotiations. This was, the source added, to be expected given the nature of the negotiations, including the iterative process where countries revise their funding commitments over several rounds.
The deal will help bridge that funding gap, the source said, as it united France, Germany and Italy around support for both Ariane 6 and Vega C as well as future launch, creating interdependence between countries with different priorities. Any long-term deal requires success in securing funding for launch programs at the Ministerial meeting.
However, the agreement appeared to open the door to the revision of a long-standing ESA principle of “geographic return”, or the distribution of contracts according to the share that each country contributes to the agency’s programs. . Some large countries have criticized georeturn, arguing that it makes programs less efficient.
The document indicates that, within the framework of the new framework for the launcher, “such an exercise would involve initiating a reflection with the States concerned on the conditions of the industrial and geographical distribution of the work in operation”.
A press release from the French Ministry of the Economy was more direct, specifying that competitiveness would go in part through a modification of the rules of geographical profitability.
Any change, according to an agency source, would be a long-term effort and would require the approval of ESA’s 22 member states, which would not be easy. The rules for Ariane 6 and Vega C in particular were set at the start of these programs a year ago, although the source said the issue of georeturn could be considered for future launcher development projects.
There is further pressure on ESA to reform its support for launcher development. “There is no European space policy without autonomous access to space,” said Thierry Breton, European Union Commissioner for the Internal Market, during the opening session of the ministerial meeting on 22 November.
“The shortage of autonomous launch capacity in the EU has a direct impact on the deployment of EU space programs like Galileo,” he said, referring to the current pause in the launch of Galileo satellites as the Soyuz rocket is no longer available and Ariane 6 is delayed. . “The situation is not sustainable for long, and urgently needs to be addressed with a truly European approach to have a fully self-contained, reliable and cost-effective EU launch solution, including, of course, backups covering all launcher ranges.”
Breton said he expected ESA member states to support “sustained funding” for Ariane 6 and Vega C and work on future launch systems. The EU, he said, “is definitely ready to support all these efforts, and it will.”