(Sen) - European space companies have begun work on a study to produce a new roadmap for the future of their spaceflight operations.
The European Space Agency (ESA) wants them to investigate how feasible a new approach would be that would make the continent's launch services fully self-sufficient over the long-term.
The plan for this New European Launch Service – NELS – is to make sure that launch services for both governmental and private customers remain competitive but also keep up with the rapidly changing worldwide launch market.
No launches are made from Europe itself. But it has a major spaceport at French Guiana in South America that is operated by Arianespace, a satellite launch company owned by French space agency CNES, Astrium and other space businesses representing 10 European countries.
This centre is highly successful, with Arianespace now offering a versatile family of three different launchers to suit different-sized payloads.
The big beast is the Ariane 5 heavy-lift launch vehicle which has made 63 launches to date, including 49 successful missions in a row.
The writer watched one successful launch in 2010, carrying the Hylas satellite to bring improved internet facilities to remote regions. The latest lift-off, last month, was carrying two huge satellites, one for US comms company Hughes and the other the latest Meteosat weather station.
An Ariane 5 launching in 2010. Credit: Sen's Paul Sutherland
Europe has also recently introduced a second proven workhorse, the Soyuz medium-launcher. This has made two successful flights from its new base, far from its usual home of Baikonur in Kazakhstan where it has made a further 24 commercial launches, all successful, for Arianespace's partner Starsem.
This year, a third light-launcher was added to the fleet - Vega. The first flight, in February, carried two Italian satellites plus seven small mini "CubeSats" for European universities.
Despite the successes, ESA is concerned about future viability of the current set-up. They say the risk is that it will become less sustainable economically later down the line.
Sen's Paul Sutherland at Ariane 5 launchpad. Credit: Dan Moseley
Announcing the review, ESA said: "The projected likelihood is that – despite continuing work to reduce the cost of launch services – the trend towards larger geostationary satellites coupled with increasingly fierce international competition will mean public money will be required on a continuous basis to fund the costs of maintaining assets in operational conditions in order to preserve autonomous European space access with the current family of launchers.
"So, the preferred option is to ensure the continuation of industrial activities in production and to start developments that will prepare for the next generation of launch vehicles."
The study to produce a blueprint for future launch services will be led by two teams that have been awarded contracts to do the exercise by ESA. One is led by MT Aerospace in Germany, the other by Astrium ST in France. They began their work this month and will produce preliminary results for ESA by the end of September.