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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 May, 2003, 13:31 GMT 14:31 UK
Europe's rockets get boosted
Space ministers have weighed in with a huge investment package to secure the future of Europe's launch industry.

Ariane 5, AFP
Back on track: Funds agreed to purchase new launchers and revise the beefed-up Ariane 5
Over a billion euros of public and private money will be pumped into the sector to overhaul its manufacturing and marketing programmes.

The package, agreed at a European Space Agency (Esa) meeting in Paris, will also see the Russian Soyuz rocket being offered as a launch vehicle to satellite customers, probably from 2006.

"The decisions reached are among the most important in years," said Edelgard Bulmahn, the German minister who chaired the Esa meeting.

"The Esa member states have provided the Ariane launcher system with the structures it needs to deal effectively with competition in a keenly disputed market."

The current problems facing the industry stem from a dramatic downturn in demand for satellites to be put into orbit.

However, this global slump was exacerbated in Europe by the failure in December of the new, beefed-up Ariane 5 vehicle.

Marketing rockets

The rocket, designed to carry 10 tonnes of payload towards geostationary orbit, exploded four minutes into its maiden flight.

Space ministers approved the funds to fix the design flaw responsible for the accident and the testing programme that will take the rocket back into space. This envisages two qualification flights.

Meeting, Esa
Rodota and Bulmahn: "A great day for Europe"
A March 2004 launch would carry a dummy payload into orbit; the second flight, in September 2004, would send up Esa's first Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). This new "cargo truck" is intended to ferry supplies to astronauts living on the International Space Station.

The space ministers also agreed to a radical overhaul of the way the whole European launch programme is managed.

Arianespace, the company charged under a convention with Esa to operate Europe's rockets, will concentrate its efforts more on the marketing side of the business.

Manned option

In future, development and manufacturing of rockets will be the sole responsibility of the European Aeronautic Defence & Space Company (EADS).

Arianespace would essentially just purchase rockets - Ariane 5s, the forthcoming Vega vehicles, and Soyuz rockets from Russian company Starsem - and launch them for customers.

Galileo, Esa
The Galileo satellite navigation system should be operational by 2008
Arianespace will be recapitalised and it will receive a heavy subsidy over the next few years to cover some of its fixed costs.

The decision to offer Soyuz provides a full range of launchers to customers. Smaller payloads will travel on Vegas; larger satellites will be lifted by Ariane 5s.

Soyuz will lift medium payloads and provide Europe with a manned spaceflight option.

Esa member states have pledged more than half of the 314 million euros needed to build a Soyuz launch pad at Europe's Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.

Closer ties

Space ministers on Tuesday also unfroze 124 million euros in contributions to the International Space Station (ISS). And they noted the agreements to press ahead with the Galileo satellite navigation system, scheduled to be operational by 2008.

Galileo is designed to girdle the globe with 30 satellites in medium Earth orbit, comprising 27 operational satellites and three reserves, plus two control centres on the ground.

Ministers also took steps to tie Esa closer to the European Union.

"This is a great day for Europe in general and its space community in particular," Antonio Rodota, Esa director-general, said after the meeting.

"Conscious of the economic, industrial and strategic importance of guaranteed access to space and applications such as satellite navigation, our member states have given fresh momentum to European space activities, demonstrating Europe's continued resolve to remain at the forefront."

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