In space, the year 2022 ended on a false note for Europe, with the failure of the Vega-C launcher. Philippe Baptiste, Chairman and CEO of the National Center for Space Studies (Cnes) returns La Dépêche du Midi to the big meetings of Europe in the conquest of space in 2023.
What are the challenges in the space sector in 2023?
They are many. An acceleration in space was recorded in 2022. It was seen almost everywhere in the world but especially in France with Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who announced 9 billion euros over the next three years for space. This is unheard of before. This means that everyone is generally excited about the topic. Behind this, there are issues about science, about exploration … But we realize that the issue of defense and strategic independence takes up more and more space. Space is also a big business issue.
Today, space is also, and above all, the first tool for observing the Earth. If we didn’t have space, we wouldn’t understand how the climate is evolving. Without space, the IPCC cannot function.
What are the major events for Europe in the field of space in 2023?
In 2023 we will have the first results of the SWOT, a satellite manufactured in Toulouse with the Thales Alenia space. This satellite will completely change our view of ocean topography and surface waters. This is a great project between NASA and Cnes, and the entire international community is awaiting its results. We will publish key data for people working on climate change and feed the mathematical models that allow us today to better understand climate change. It is a means of assessing the evolution of water stocks in wetlands for the first time with very high accuracy.
But for Europe, 2023 is undoubtedly the year of launchers, with the end of Ariane 5. This is the highlight of Cnes, who designed this launcher: Ariane 5 was an amazing launcher, with a success rate of more than 95%. Thanks to him, we were able to launch the Rosetta space probe, European space cargo ships, the James Webb telescope …
But Ariane-6 will take over in 2023 …
So far, European supremacy in terms of launchers has rested on three launchers: Vega, a small European launcher currently in difficulty; Soyuz, whose Russian teams have now left Kuru for obvious reasons after the invasion of Ukraine and the European reaction; And Aryan-5. The Ariane-6 launcher is designed to replace both the Ariane-5 and the Soyuz.
It’s a launcher with many advantages: It’s half the price of the Ariane-5. It’s a launcher that also has a re-ignitable last stage: technically, it’s well suited for launching constellations from satellites, which has become an important business issue. Today, Ariane-6’s order book is already full. We’ve never had a launcher with this order book prior to its first flight, which is good news.
However, this first flight should be a success. You also talked about “potential risks” in this matter. Are you afraid of technical failures?
If all goes well, we will launch the first time in 2023. But today, we still have to finish this launch program. The launch pad built by Cnes is nearing completion. Now, we have a lot of work to do in the next few months: assembling the actuator and driver board, and verifying that the two work perfectly together. During these stages of testing we will be able to discover problems that we have not seen so far. We are doing our best to go as quickly as possible because we know we have a problem with European sovereignty in space. We don’t have a lot of launchers, and we have a lot of launch needs.
Do you have concerns after the failed launch of Vega at the end of 2022?
It adds a bit to the woes of European launchers. Delay for Ariane-6, end of Soyuz and on top of that we know third Vega launch failure, it’s annoying. But we are still very excited and confident with ESA and with our Italian friends from Avio, to get back on the cruise as soon as possible.
Aside from Ariane-6 and the big launchers, Cnes is also closely interested in “small launchers”. Why this interest?
It’s an interesting area. Small and compact launchers allow for very short and highly reactive firing campaigns. On large launch pads, we’ll have long waits sometimes. These small launchers will make it possible to place groups of small satellites into low orbit. These micro launchers can also be used to replace faulty satellites. We can also carry out “on demand” launches if, for example, there are specific surveillance needs: we know that the armed forces may be interested in this type of request. There is a market around this, even if it remains marginal: small launchers account for 15 to 20% of the global market for launchers.
This year, Toulouse hosted the Space Command. Symbolically, what does this mean for Cnes?
It’s a very good chance. This reinforces Toulouse’s role as a bastion of space in Europe. And then the Space Command arrived, but not alone, with NATO also to be created. We do this in close collaboration with the DGA. The Air and Space Force is rapidly gaining momentum to operate its satellites and we support it with our technical skills and experience. In 2023, Toulouse will also be the scene of a new “AsterX” exercise led by CDE: the aim is to test our ability to protect French satellites from malicious actions. In 2023, for example, the Syracuse IV project will be launched with the Ariane-5: this will involve the strengthening of the telecommunications of the Armed Forces.