European space nations wrangle over funding increase

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[November 23, 2022]  By Tim Hepher
 
PARIS (Reuters) - European nations raced down to the wire to find an extra four billion euros for space projects on the second day of talks in Paris designed to further climate research and exploration. 

A logo of the European Space Agency (ESA) is pictured at their headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany, September 30, 2016. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

The European Space Agency is asking its 22 member nations to come up with 18.5 billion euros ($19.06 billion) to fund rocket launches, satellites and Europe's participation in planetary research for 2023-25 but the triennial talks have become entangled in economic uncertainty.

"We are getting there; the total is coming up nicely. It may not get all the way there but (we) will be close," a delegate from a major contributing country said as officials entered the latest in an exhausting series of funding negotiations on Wednesday.

Nations were still struggling to pin down detailed funding of Europe's Ariane and Vega rocket launch network, he said.

The European grouping, whose Ariane rocket pioneered commercial launches but now faces intense competition from Elon Musk's SpaceX, is seeking to maintain a key role in space while balancing the political constraints of its large and small nations.

The funding exercise in a hangar-like temporary conference centre near the Eiffel Tower involves back-to-back rounds in which nations chip in to areas like exploration or observation, and then individual projects in return for industrial work.

Ministers and officials took their horse-trading into a dinner reception at the Paris Opera on Tuesday and then into the night as several nations organised "splinter meetings".

"They are shifting money around; that is what is going on at the moment," said a second person familiar with the 36-hour marathon.

In 2019, ESA nations adopted a budget of 14.5 billion euros, meaning the agency is asking for a roughly 25% increase spread over three years.

Small countries were seen as making painful efforts to come up with budgets guaranteeing new skilled jobs under ESA's quid-pro-quo "fair return" system as the deadline neared for a deal.

"Every figure is committing nations; it is not just an Excel spreadsheet," the second person added.

In a joint declaration on Tuesday, Europe's big three space launch nations - France, Germany and Italy - opened the door to a new generation of microlaunchers and a future review of funding rules in the face of U.S. and Chinese space ambitions.

ESA Director General Josef Ashbacher said late on Tuesday that the politically significant move had "unlocked" negotiations among other nations, but detailed talks were still needed to translate that into funding under the current system.

($1 = 0.9709 euros)

(Reporting by Tim Hepher; editing by Richard Lough)

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