French space agency CNES and the European Space Agency (ESA) are evaluating near-term options for boosting the payload capacity of the Ariane 5 ECA through hardware improvements that officials say could quickly enhance the launch vehicle’s performance ahead of a planned midlife upgrade already underway.

One such option would be to fast-track development of a longer Ariane 5 ECA payload fairing, stretching the current 17-meter nosecone to 19 meters to accommodate larger satellites, says Stephane Israel, incoming head of European launch services provider Arianespace, which manages commercial and institutional Ariane 5 missions.

Although ESA is already developing a longer payload fairing as part of a planned midlife upgrade to Ariane 5 ECA, the roomier nosecone would not be available until 2017.

“We have analyzed it and our view is that satellites are becoming more voluminous,” Israel said June 4, adding that a larger Ariane 5 payload shroud could be developed for well under €100 million ($130 million) and be ready in 2015.

The goal, Israel says, is to accommodate launches of all-electric satellites, a promising new capability that relies on lightweight ion thrusters rather than chemical propellant to maneuver spacecraft into orbital position. While lighter than conventionally fueled satellites, Israel says all-electric spacecraft are expected to occupy more space inside a rocket’s nose-cone.

Last year Boeing won an estimated $400 million contract with Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS) and Satellites Mexicanos (SatMex) to build the first all-electric commercial telecom spacecraft intended for launch to geostationary orbit. The two satellites are to launch together in late 2014 atop a new Falcon 9 rocket in development at Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX).

Israel says ESA is expected to approve development of the new fairing, tentatively named ECA-Plus, this fall. The project would be managed by the 20-nation space agency in coordination with Ariane 5 prime contractor Astrium Space Transportation of France and Germany and RUAG Space of Switzerland, which builds the Ariane 5 ECA’s current 17-meter nosecone designed to enshroud two satellites in a single launch.

Under a separate development, RUAG is already building a 19-meter fairing as part of a midlife upgrade to the Ariane 5 ECA, known as the Ariane 5 ME. Although the two fairings would share a common length of 19 meters, RUAG explains the nosecone being built for Ariane 5 ME incorporates different materials and production processes chosen with affordability in mind.

Israel says CNES could finance much of ECA-Plus using a small portion of €500 million in public bond money earmarked for space technology programs as part of a broader stimulus package approved by the French government in 2010. CNES, the largest stakeholder in Arianespace, has dedicated roughly half of these funds to studying a leaner, modular and more affordable heavy-lift rocket that would use existing technologies and production facilities to replace the cumbersome, costly and commercially reliant Ariane 5 of today.

In November 2012 ESA governments approved funding for early work on the Ariane 5 successor, known as Ariane 6, an effort to maintain European competitiveness against new entrants to the commercial launch market, notably the low-cost Falcon 9. CNES and ESA are now designing Ariane 6 to carry satellites weighing 2,000-7,000 kg (4,400-15,400 lb.) to geostationary transfer orbit by 2021 for a total cost of €70 million per launch.

In parallel, ESA governments approved more than €400 million in funding for continued development of the Ariane 5 ME. In addition to the longer payload fairing and an updated payload bay, the midlife upgrade is designed to boost the ECA’s payload-carrying capacity by as much as 20% with a new upper stage equipped with the Vinci restartable engine, in development at Safran’s Snecma motors division in France.

The €2 billion Ariane 5 ME is being financed mainly by Germany, with production of the more powerful upper stage securing work for Astrium Space Transportation of Bremen.

As ESA’s two largest contributors, France and Germany remain deeply divided over whether to continue work on the Ariane 5 ME or apply more resources to speeding development of the Ariane 6. When ESA ministers meet next year to plot a way forward on launch vehicle development, France will seek approval to begin full-scale development of the Ariane 6, while Germany will expect member states to fund continued work on the Ariane 5 ME. With space budgets in Europe flat or declining, it is unlikely ESA can afford to do both.