France, Germany and Italy sign an agreement to develop launch vehicles

PARIS — An agreement among three European countries could help secure short-term funding for launch vehicle development, but will have a bigger impact in the long run on how future projects are financed.

The governments of France, Germany and Italy announced on November 22 that they had signed an agreement on “the future of launch vehicle operation in Europe” which they said would boost the competitiveness of European vehicles while ensuring independent European access to space.

The agreement includes a timeline that, by June 2024, calls for establishing a new framework for public financing of vehicles such as Ariane 6 and Vega C. This includes “an incentive mechanism to reduce costs” with funding “commensurate with the commercial risks taken’ and ability to achieve target prices.

The agreement also authorizes the possibility of new small launch vehicles under development by several European companies to compete for European Space Agency missions. This is considered a priority for Germany in particular, which has supported the development of commercial small launch vehicles.

The deal coincides with the ongoing ESA ministerial meeting, where member states will allocate funding for projects including launch vehicle development. ESA is seeking just over 3 billion euros ($3.1 billion) for space transport overall, including 600 million euros for an Ariane 6 “transition program” as the long-delayed rocket, whose maiden flight has at least at the end of 2023. service.

The program has secured two-thirds of its ministerial funding, but faced a €195 million gap as the meeting began. ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher, speaking to reporters at the end of the first day of the cabinet meeting on November 22, said he was optimistic that the agreement announced by France, Germany and Italy would help close this gap.

“This was very important because this political understanding and agreement unblocks other discussions that then affect subscriptions,” he said. “That was very important and significant and opened the door for discussion later.”

However, as of late Nov. 22, that funding gap had not yet been closed, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. That was, the source added, to be expected given the nature of the negotiations, including the iterative process where countries revise their funding commitments over multiple rounds.

The deal will help close that funding gap, the source said, because it united France, Germany and Italy around support for both Ariane 6 and Vega C as well as future launch systems, creating interdependence between of countries given different priorities. Any long-term deal requires success in securing funding for start-up programs in cabinet.

However, the agreement appeared to open the door to a review of a long-standing ESA principle of “geo-return,” or the allocation of contracts based on the share each country contributes to delegation programs. Some larger countries have criticized return farming, arguing that it makes programs less effective.

The document said that, as part of the new launcher framework, “such an exercise would entail the initiation of a reflection with the States concerned on the conditions for the industrial and geographical distribution of labor in the farm”.

A statement from the French finance ministry was blunter, stating that competitiveness would be achieved in part by a change in the rules on geographic return.

Any change, an agency source said, 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 those programs a year ago, although the source said the georeturn issue could be considered for future launch vehicle development projects.

There is other pressure on ESA to reform its support for launch vehicle development. “There is no European space policy without autonomous access to space,” said Thierry Breton, European Union Commissioner for the Internal Market, in comments at the opening session of the ministerial meeting on 22 November.

“The lack of autonomous launch capability in the EU has a direct impact on the development of EU space programs such as Galileo,” he said, referring to the ongoing pause in the launch of Galileo satellites because the Soyuz rocket is no longer available and Ariane 6 is delayed. . “The situation is not sustainable for long, and there is an urgent need to rectify the situation through a truly European approach to have a fully autonomous, reliable and cost-effective launch solution in the EU, including, of course, back-ups covering all ranges of launchers .”

Breton said he expects ESA member states to support “sustained funding” of Ariane 6 and Vega C and work on future launch systems. The EU, he said, “is certainly ready to support all these efforts and will do so.”

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