When the European Space Agency's council of ministers meets this fall to hash out a new multiyear budget, one of the key challenges it will face is how best to maintain Europe's independent access to space.

With potentially billions of euros in development funding at stake over the coming decade, ESA ministers must weigh the merits of continuing work on an upgrade of Europe's current Ariane 5 launch vehicle against a French proposal to begin work on a successor to the heavy-lift rocket. The debate will be shaped largely by the cash-strapped circumstances of ESA member governments, most of which are demanding an end to periodic Ariane 5 price supports. In addition, council ministers representing the 19-nation agency will seek to maintain Europe's technological independence from other space powers, even as ESA embarks on a more competitive approach to launcher procurement that could upend three decades of industrial policy in an effort to lower costs.

For now, France and Germany—ESA's top two contributors—maintain opposing views on the issue, with Germany strongly endorsing continued work on an estimated €1.6 billion ($2 billion) upgrade to the Ariane 5, known as the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (Ariane 5 ME). France, which approved early design work on the ME during ESA's 2008 budget ministerial, is now pressing the case for a less capable but also less costly next-generation launcher tentatively dubbed the Ariane 6.

By the end of June a Franco-German working group is expected to produce a joint analysis of the pros and cons of different options and a number of ESA member states are evaluating architecture designs internally to bolster their respective positions ahead of the November ministerial.

While Franco-German consensus could be tested by political tension between French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for the most part space policy has not been a subject of political debate in France, which means the working group's output is unlikely to be influenced by the new French administration or upcoming parliamentary elections in June.

The launcher debate took an odd turn in April, however, when ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain bucked 35 years of European acquisition policy—agency-specific rules that guarantee member states industry work-share in return for financial backing—and instead called for a competitive, requirements-based approach to buying Europe's next-generation launcher. By June the agency will select two industry proposals to kick off year-long design studies under the so-called New European Launch Services (NELS) program, with work expected to begin before July.

“Companies are always complaining that the lack of competitiveness is coming from the constraints imposed by ESA and its member states,” Dordain said on the sidelines of an International Space Station symposium held May 2-4 in Berlin. “I tell them, I am offering you one window of opportunity. You just answer as you want, with zero constraints of geographical return, zero constraints of anything.”

Well, almost anything. The NELS tender calls for industry to comply with a number of launch vehicle design specifications, which are drawn largely from requirements provided by European launch customers, including satellite fleet operators SES, Eutelsat and Hispasat, as well as defense ministries.

“This is focused on performance with an upper level around 6.5 metric tons, more or less, and at the lower level around three to four metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit,” says Antonio Fabrizi, ESA's director of launch vehicles. He adds that NELS design specs also fall within ESA's Next Generation Launcher (NGL) program and are similar to those of the modular Ariane 6, which France has been studying for the past two years using a portion of €200 million in public bond money.

Dordain says he expects the solicita-tion to yield at least a few creative ideas for reining in costs. Managed by the Arianespace launch consortium, the current Ariane 5 has to capture 50% of the commercial launch market just to break even. The company has taken steps to lower costs in recent years, diversifying its product line to include a European variant of the Russian Soyuz rocket and Italy's new Vega light launcher. But France envisions Ariane 6 as capable of breaking even with a much-reduced portion of the commercial launch market combined with a handful of institutional missions each year. Such a business model could obviate the need for ESA's €120 million in annual price-support payments.

“If there is a chance to have a model where support for exploitation will come to an end, I have to tell the member states,” Dordain says, referring to Ariane 5 operating costs.

With release of the NELS tender, the debate moves front and center ahead of November's council meeting, where the timing of the solicitation could ultimately work in favor of continuing Ariane 5 ME. Although a credible argument could be made for starting early definition and design work on NELS in parallel with the midlife rocket upgrade, the year-long launch vehicle studies will not begin before June, with ESA ministers expected to see little of the preliminary architecture and cost data before fall.

“It gives a good excuse for member states not to support Ariane 6 at the ministerial,” says one European industry executive who favors continued work on Ariane 5 ME.

Dordain agrees that the timing is not ideal, but says the alternative is to ask ESA members to continue financing support payments for Ariane 5, and potentially its midlife upgrade.

“If I am waiting for the best time to make this approach, we shall never find the time, and this is the reason why we have taken the risk to issue this approach,” he says.

German space officials assert that the Ariane 5 ME is better suited than a new launcher to maintaining European access to space, and Ariane 5 prime contractor Astrium Space Transportation has said the midlife upgrade—which incorporates the restartable Vinci cryogenic upper-stage engine and is expected to increase the current rocket's performance by 20%—would put an end to ESA price supports.

Michel Eymard, director of launchers at the French space agency (CNES), says Ariane 5 ME offers the potential to lower costs and curb the need for continued subsidies. During a May 7 space propulsion conference in Bordeaux, France, Eymard noted that Ariane 6 is designed from the outset to reduce spending and eliminate any need for further financial backing from ESA.

“In France, our objective is to keep a reliable system, an available system, but also a system which does not require any support from the public sector during the exploitation phase,” Eymard said of the next-generation launcher, which France says could be operational by the early part of the next decade. “The requirement for Ariane 6 is to have a balanced exploitation, even if the competition becomes more severe.”

Eymard says the launch-service architecture options France has been studying include a two-stage rocket with a cryogenic core based on the Vulcain engine that powers the Ariane 5 today and the restartable Vinci upper-stage engine. A second option would combine two solid-rocket-motor stages with a cryogenic liquid oxygen (LOX) upper stage. To ensure the launchers can accommodate a range of mission requirements, strap-on solids could be clustered around the central core of either configuration to increase the geostationary-transfer-orbit payload capability to 8,000 kg (17,600 lb.) from 3,000 kg, he said.

Designed to replace both the heavy-lift Ariane 5 and medium-class Soyuz rockets that operate alongside Vega at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, the Ariane 6 could orbit medium and large telecommunications satellites one at a time. The current Ariane 5 architecture lofts two satellites—one medium, one large—per launch, though orchestrating such dual missions of commercial and sometimes government payloads can be tricky, and achieving optimum payload capacity is not always possible.

Arturo de Lillis, head of launchers and space transportation at the Italian space agency (ASI), says Italy is opposed to continuing support payments for Ariane 5 and would like to see elements of its new Vega light launcher incorporated into a solid-rocket-engine configuration of the next-generation launcher, including a new high-performing version of Vega's P80 that ASI is developing with ESA.

“Due to financial constraints we are not in a position to support forever the Ariane 5,” he says. “In view of the potential synergies between Vega and a new launch vehicle replacing Ariane 5, or even Ariane 5 ME, Italy's preference is of course in this direction.”

De Lillis says Italy has been discussing the potential for Germany to develop a new upper stage for Vega, which currently uses Russian and Ukrainian hardware. He says talks have been ongoing for years, but a decision on developing an all-European Vega has yet to be reached.

In the meantime, Italy is working under a bilateral agreement with Russia to develop a LOX/methane engine to replace Vega's third and fourth stages. ASI plans to demonstrate the new engine before year-end.

On a longer-term basis, ASI is considering an all-Italian Vega variant and is developing a technology demo in an effort to improve homegrown engineering skills.

“We want to master this technology at the national and European levels first,” he declares. “The following step will not include Russia anymore.”

But ESA could struggle to reconcile the desire for a new, more competitive industrial strategy under NELS with its policy of “non-dependence,” which demands European-only technologies in the critical path. Despite increased reliance on international cooperation in space, particularly in the areas of robotic and manned exploration, asking ESA members to fund launch vehicle development outside the euro zone is a non-starter, according to Dordain.

“This is one of the most difficult aspects of this call for proposals: How to reconcile the total liberty of industry to make the proposals they would like to do with the policy of non-dependence,” he says. “But I have no chance to get any contribution for something that will not be developed in the member states.”

Two-Stage Configuration Options
Main Stage
1. Cryogenic liquid oxygen and hydrogen engine (staged combustion cycle)
2. Cryogenic liquid oxygen and hydrogen engine (gas generator cycle)
3. Liquid oxygen and methane engine (staged combustion cycle)
Upper Stage
1. Cryogenic reignitable engine
2. Cryogenic reignitable engine
3. Cryogenic reignitable engine
Three-Stage Configuration Option
First Two Stages
1. Powered by solid propellants
Upper Stage
1. Cryogenic reignitable engine
Source: European Space Agency