European nations approved funding for a new Ariane 6 space rocket on Tuesday (2 December), pooling their resources in a single, simplified version to tackle growing international competition.
The new, lower-cost rocket will replace the current Ariane 5 from its first launch in 2020, French Research Minister Genevieve Fioraso said after ministerial talks in Luxembourg.
Science ministers from the 20 nation European Space Agency, which last month made headlines by landing a probe on a speeding comet, also approved European funding for the International Space Station (ISS) and a further mission to Mars.
Ariane 6 will account for about half of the 8 billion euro budget approved by ministers over 10 years.
“This decision will safeguard 16,000 direct jobs in France and 35,000 in Europe,” Fioraso said.
The agreement resolves a two year strategy dispute between France, which backed the new rocket, and Germany, which had favoured an interim upgrade to the current technology.
At a previous meeting in 2012, the nations settled for a compromise that would have seen both projects go ahead at greater cost. Ariane 6 will incorporate part of the studies for the abandoned upgrade, which was seen as key for German jobs.
Roberto Battiston, president of the Italian Space Agency, told reporters earlier that Europe had no choice but to bury differences to stay in the $6.5 billion space launch industry.
“At the end of the day, it must turn out to be something which can be competitive on the world market of satellites,” he said on the sidelines of the one-day meeting in Luxembourg.
As part of the deal struck on Tuesday, Germany secured agreement on 800 million euros in funding for European ISS participation and the 2018 ExoMars mission to the red planet.
The move to proceed with a leaner Ariane 6 without further delay is designed to reduce costs in the face of U.S. newcomer SpaceX. Japan and India also pose a growing challenge.
It was welcomed by France-based contractors Airbus Group and Safran, which have agreed to combine space launcher activities to cut Ariane’s costs.
“Things have moved at an unprecedented speed in this sector: the speed of light,” Airbus space chief Francois Auque said.
The ESA’s director general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, said there would be one take-off of the Ariane 6 from French Guiana in 2020 and four in 2021, rising to the annual target of 11 in 2023.
He said the deal included sensitive changes in the way European projects are managed. Commercial launches will no longer be subsidised.
“I used to be a professor of mechanics. I know that where there is movement, there is resistance, and I don’t expect the implementation of today’s decisions will go without a hitch”.
The Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) group in the European Parliament have hailed the decision by the European Space Agency, saying it showed Europe was "united and in the lead" on space policy.
"I am very happy with the agreement that has been reached since in space exploration, it is essential to have reliable launchers and quality," said Dominique Riquet, a French Liberal MEP who is a member of the Parliament's Industry, Research and Energy committee. "Spurred on by competition from the US and SpaceX, the answers lies obviously in European cooperation. With the establishment of a joint venture combining Airbus, Safran and CNES, we are on course to develop a new European champion, similar to Airbus in the aeronautic sector. "
"By joining forces we can maintain our position in this area. Today, no single European state has the capability on its own to keep up," Riquet said.
European Space Agency (ESA):
- Press release: Successful conclusion of ESA council at ministerial level (2 Dec. 2014)
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE):
- Press release: Launching Ariane 6: A Europe united and in the lead (3 Dec. 2014)