AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
Published — Wednesday 21 November 2012
Last update 21 November 2012 7:54 am
NAPLES, Italy: The future of Europe’s space program came under the spotlight in this southern Italian city yesterday, where ministers discussed rival plans for a successor to the successful Ariane 5 launcher. The 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA), meeting at ministerial level for the first time in four years, is staging two days of budget talks.
The meeting takes place against a backdrop of money worries, a fast-shifting satellite market and the growing strength of the US private sector in near-Earth space.
“This council (meeting) is crucial to sustain autonomous European access to Space...” France’s Research Minister Genevieve Fioraso said in a speech prepared for the opening and sent to AFP.
In an interview with AFP last week, ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain said he hoped members would back a three-year budget of 12 billion euros ($ 15 billion) but added he would be happy with “something around 10 billion euros.”
It would mean a roughly stable budget compared with current levels, he said.
One of the most crucial agenda items was deciding on a future generation of rocket launcher to replace the ageing Ariane 5.
The new rocket should provide more flexible launch options for the swiftly-changing satellite market.
France is pushing for a smaller, sleeker Ariane 6 launcher system, which would require about four billion euros, culminating in a maiden flight in 2021 if all goes well.
Germany wants a less ambitious option, an Ariane 5 ME (for “Midlife Evolution”), which would be readier sooner at a putative cost of two billion euros.
Weighing on many minds is not just belt-tightening but also the rise of the US private sector.
Last month, the US firm SpaceX sent an unmanned freighter, Dragon, to the International Space Station under a NASA initiative to delegate resupply missions to private corporations after the phaseout of the US space shuttle.