When European Space Agency ministers meet this fall to hash out the agency's next multiyear budget, they will gather in Caserta, Italy, north of Naples.
Slated for the third week of November, Italian Research Minister Francesco Profumo says he plans to open the conference himself as chairman of the 19-member space agency's ruling council. During his first visit to ESA's ESRIN Earth observation facility in Frascati last week, he underlined his personal commitment to a successful meeting.
“Not only is this a source of pride but also motivation to work hard in the coming months for the success of ministerial conference,” Profumo said.
As ESA's main governing body, the ESA Council provides basic policy guidelines within which the agency develops the European space program. Each of ESA's 19 member states is represented on the Council with a single vote, regardless of its size or financial contribution.
“One of the main topics of the ministerial conference will be the so called access to space and the European launchers policy to be implemented in the coming years,” Profumo said, a reference to discord between ESA's two largest contributors, France and Germany, over the future of European launch vehicle development.
During ESA's last budget ministerial in 2008, member states approved a plan to spend €355 million to start work on an upgrade to Europe's workhorse Ariane 5 launcher. Dubbed the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution, or Ariane 5 ME, the update is to include a new upper stage powered by the restartable Vinci engine, improving the Astrium-built rocket's performance by 20 percent for the same price of an Ariane 5 launch today.
However, France has suggested it might be prudent to forego the additional €1.1 billion needed in the upcoming budget ministerial for Ariane 5 ME and move straight to development of an Ariane 5 successor. Tentatively dubbed the Ariane 6 by some in France, the proposed modular rocket would be designed with costs, rather than performance, in mind, a factor that the French argue would keep operations expenses low and make the rocket less reliant on commercial business, despite scant demand anticipated among European governments for satellite launches in the next decade and beyond.
Government officials from both countries have formed a working group to hash out a common position by June 30, well ahead of the November meeting.
Profumo, in his remarks, chose not to wade into the Franco-German debate. Instead, he praised the team of engineers from ESA, the Italian Space Agency ASI and French Space Agency CNES, among others, who developed the Vega light launcher that debuted Feb. 13 at Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
“I recall this success with personal pride and really hope this major project strongly pursued by our country will be further consolidated in the next years,” Profumo said.
Profumo said he is looking forward to the launch of ESA's Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV) atop Vega sometime in the coming year. The 5-meter-long winged spacecraft is designed to test atmospheric re-entry technologies, “a sector in which Europe is still lagging behind,” he said.
IXV is intended to validate European reusable launch vehicle technologies that could have application in ESA's next-generation launch vehicle development.
Profumo discussed the importance of space as a driver for technology development and innovation, as well as for the daily lives of European citizens.
European investment in space “is important maybe for six, seven countries from the industrial point of view, because in the future we cannot handle more than this really in the industrial participation programs of ESA,” he said. “But the applications – what we can get as output – is a part of Europe, is a part of the world.”