The European Space Agency (ESA) has given its industry partners until mid-May to propose creative acquisition strategies for developing and buying a next-generation launch vehicle.
ESA officials say the tender for proposals was issued the first week of April and that responses are due the week of May 21.
ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain says the 19-nation agency will select two industry proposals by the end of June to kick off year-long design studies under ESA's New European Launch Services (NELS) program.
"I am looking for ideas," Dordain said on the sidelines of the International Space Station Symposium in Berlin May 2-4. "The approach is to remove any constraint from industry."
Dordain says European launch vehicle providers are free to propose competitive acquisition strategies that flout ESA's geographical return rules, which guarantee a 90 percent return on investment in the form of workshare to member states that help finance specific projects.
"Companies are always complaining that the lack of competitiveness is coming from the constraints imposed by ESA and its member states," he says. "I tell them, I am offering you one window of opportunity. You just answer as you want, with zero constraints of geographical return, zero constraints of anything."
Well, almost anything. Dordain says the tender issued in April calls for industry to comply with launch vehicle design specifications, which are drawn largely from requirements provided by European launch vehicle customers, such as satellite fleet operators SES, Eutelsat and Hispasat, as well as European 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 3 to 4 metric tons to Geostationary Transfer Orbit," says Antonio Fabrizi, ESA's director of launch vehicles, adding that NELS design specs also fall within ESA's Next Generation Launcher (NGL) program and are similar to those of the modular Ariane 6 vehicle France has been studying for the past two years using €200 million in public bond money.
Fabrizi says the proposals are expected to deliver preliminary results by late September, in time for the agency to integrate them into its bouquet of proposals to ESA ministers when they meet in late November to set the agency's next multiyear budget. Among other key decisions, the November conference will determine where ESA wants to go in terms of launch vehicle development, a debate that will pit a plan to fund a € 1.6-billion upgrade to the existing Ariane 5 launch vehicle, known as the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (ME), against the NELS proposals, which are based on ESA's recent survey of European satellite owners.
"If they are making the proposals respond to these requirements, they will have a guarantee of utilization from these customers," Dordain said. "It's a totally new approach. I don't know if at the end it will bring something, but let's do the exercise. And after I hope we shall have a clearer situation."