Status Report

France in Space #324

By SpaceRef Editor
February 2, 2006
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Using an exceptional technique called gravitational microlensing, a team of French and international astronomers has identified the smallest exoplanet to this day. Their discovery, part of the collaborative program PLANET (Probing Lensing Anomalies NETwork), was published in the January 26, 2006 issue of Nature. The planet, OGLE-2005-BLG-390 Lb, named after the star it gravitates around 28,000 light years away from Earth, is five and a half times the mass of our planet. Based on its mass, scientists have concluded that the new-found planet is solid and rocky (like Earth) but because of the extreme distance between it and its star the planet is frigid, most likely around -364 degrees Fahrenheit, and covered by rocks and ice. The majority of exoplanets found to date have been giant gaseous ones, similar to Saturn and Jupiter, with masses 300 times greater than that of the Earth’s. [Le Figaro 01/26/06, 01/27/06]


Space is becoming a more and more dangerous place … for satellites. This was the topic debated at a recent briefing on January 25, 2006, among satellite operators and European government officials held in Paris and sponsored by CNES. Satellite operators, especially of satellites in geostationary orbit, have proved to be less than committed to complying with international guidelines designed to limit the buildup of orbital debris. How to prevent the accumulation of debris (mostly retired or non-functioning satellites) in the valuable strip of geostationary orbit, where most telecommunication satellites are placed, is hotly debated. An estimated 159 satellites in geostationary orbit were retired between 1997 and 2005 and according to ESA statistics, only 64 of these were properly retired as directed by Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) guidelines established in 2002. Owners of an additional 55 satellites made some attempt to move their spacecraft out of geostationary orbit, while the remaining 40 were simply left in their orbits. The IADC guidelines state that the average satellite in geostationary orbit should be retired to an orbit about 300 kilometers higher. This way, the orbit can be controlled and the satellite would not encumber future spacecraft. This operation, however, can be a delicate one. Satellite operators must estimate how much fuel remains onboard in order not to over or under-shoot the retirement. The IADC also recommends that before retirement the spacecraft’s fuel tanks be emptied and their batteries and other subsystems be run down as to reduce the risk of either spontaneous explosion or on contact. Two explosions, one in 1978 and the other in 1992, have in fact created debris fields potentially lethal to new satellites. [Space News 01/27/06, Le Figaro 01/28/06]


The common European Union / ESA space program, including GMES and Galileo policies, will not be decided until 2007, or one year later than planned. The joint program should have been voted on at the third of three European Union / ESA space councils held in late 2005, yet at the third council held in November, only an endorsement of the GMES program was agreed upon. The main reasons for this delay are the EU budget concerns, as it has still to be approved by the European Parliament. ESA’s director general is quoted as saying that “as long as the EU does not have a budget, I’m not in a hurry to draw up a plan. We have to see the consequences of the EU budget for space activities.” It is expected that the joint program will only include GMES and the Galileo satellite navigation system and not space exploration, as previously thought. However, Dordain is expected to begin meeting with NASA to discuss the subject. [Flight International 01/31/06]


Created in 1986, Novespace (a subsidiary of CNES) was designed to facilitate the transfer of space technologies to non-space industry as well as promote microgravity as an important experiment tool. It’s role in transferring technology ended in 2002, however, the parabolic flight service, started in 1988, had just taken off at that time. To this day, Novespace owes its success to parabolic flights. Since May 1997, the company uses the Airbus A300 Zero-G, the largest airplane in the world used for zero-gravity flights. Novespace has even envisaged offering parabolic flights to individuals, at an estimated cost of 3000 euros per person, but French law will not yet allow it. The company ended 2005 and is starting 2006, its twentieth year, with a bang; it flew the most flights in 2005 (eight zero-gravity and two observational flights) and had record sales. It saw sales of 6.5 million euros with a net profit of 1.2 million euros compared to sales of 5.8 million euros in 2004 with a net profit of 800,000 euros. Seven flights have already been booked for 2006 for clients such as ESA, CNES and DLR, among others, and three flights will occur before April 1st. [Air & Cosmos 01/27/06]


Thales’ intentions to strengthen its ties with Alcatel, rather than join EADS, were once again confirmed this week. Discussions have begun again between Denis Rauque of Thales and Serge Tchuruk of Alcatel but the two have not yet presented the dossier defending the financial and industrial rapprochement to the French government. Only President Chirac and Prime Minister Villepin will be able to decide on such a matter as the French government is Thales’ primary stockholder with a 31% share in the company (Alcatel holds 9.5%). The two companies first became close in April 1988 when the government decided to privatize Thales. At that time, Alcatel was the primary shareholder with 16.36%. Over time Alcatel’s share in the company varied and even rose to 25.29% but eventually the company sold its shares to finance its telecommunication activities. The two companies have been fighting relentlessly since the end of last year to avoid a rapprochement with EADS, much to the latter’s chagrin. [Le Figaro 01/31/06]

** 6: IN BRIEF

At a ceremony held Thursday, January 26, 2006, at the Embassy of France in Washington, DC, SAFRAN Group formally donated a Viking 5C rocket engine to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM). In attendance for this grand event were His Excellency Jean-David Levitte, Ambassador of France, Mr. Jean-Paul Herteman, Senior Vice-President of SAFRAN Group and President of the Propulsion Branch, and Mr. Roger Launius, chair of NASM’s Space History Division. The motor will now be on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center branch of the museum, located in Chantilly, Virginia, and will be part of the historic space motors collection. The Viking motor is hailed as on of the most reliable of its generation; it successfully launched 143 Ariane rockets in its time. [SAFRAN Group 01/27/06]

Alcatel Alenia Space announced Monday that it has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a research and development, technology and innovation institution in South Africa. The MoU’s goal is to consolidate global cooperation in the space market and to leverage their respective expertise and knowledge. Alcatel Alenia Space and the CSIR will work conjointly to develop space science skills first in South Africa and then contribute them to the national Human Resource Development objectives. They will also work to improve the quality of life in South Africa and throughout the continent. Several areas of cooperation have been identified such as landcover mapping, broadband solutions via satellite dedicated to tele-epidemiology, satellite navigation and development in astronomy related initiatives. Alcatel wishes to reinforce its commitment in the region and hopes to bridge the digital divide with Africa. [Alcatel Alenia Space 01/26/06]


France In Space is a weekly synthesis of French space activities based on French press. Its content does not reflect an official position of the French Government or CNES. It is provided by the CNES office and the Office of Science and Technology of the French Embassy in Washington D.C Editors: Jean-Jacques Tortora, Clémence Le Fèvre, Noëlle Miliard

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SpaceRef staff editor.