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.