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Europe bids for space profits; USSR ready for star wars?; Ariane launching also masks European indecision on what to attempt next

The "definite and absolute" success of the Ariane rocket test flight June 19 has put Western Europe back on track in its bid to capture a substantial share of the commercial space launching market. But the exuberance of Eric Quistgaard , director-general of the European Space Agency (ESA), masks a larger uncertainty.

"This proves to the world that Europe is in space for good," he said. But the 12-member space agency has yet to make up its collective mind as to what it wants to do in space now that it is well on its way to having its own launch facility.

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Should it emphasize development of more powerful versions of Ariane, aiming perhaps at a robot space factory, as France has suggested? Should it instead give priority to dev veloping an advanced communications satellite, as Britain has urged? Should it concentrate more on general space science as Quistgaard has proposed, which arouses little interest among ESA members?

Or should it push ahead with an Earth-observing satellite program (which has wide interest), and, if so, should this be confined to ocean surveillance as France wants, or should it also include land-observing as Britain wants?

Inability to settle on the general thrust of ESA activity for the 1980s has been at least as unsetting to the agency and to Quistgaard as the failure of the second Ariane test flight May 30 last year, shortly after the Danish industrialist took over as ESA director-general. Now, with the outlook for Ariane again bright, there will be new pressure on ESA members to pull together a general plan of action and agree on a budget.

Ariane is a well-designed rocket that uses tried-and-true technology. Its difficulties are not untypical of space launcher development. And so far, at least, they have not pushed its cost (somewhat in excess of $1 billion) beyond what had been bargained for, since the budget contains a 20 percent contingency margin to take care of unexpected trouble.

Ariane should be thought of as a system that includes the launch facilities at Kourou in French Guiana. To the east and north, there is open ocean, which enables easy launch into either equatorial or polar orbits or orbits in between. Also, Kourou is only 5.5 degrees from the equator, a location that enables Ariane to put 17 percent more payload into the geosynchronous equatorial orbit used for communications satellites than can comparable rockets launched at higher latitudes. This is the orbit in which a satellite remains over a given spot on the surface below.

Kourou's advantage arises partly because the launch vehicle does not have to maneuver much to get into equatorial position. There also is a slight launching gain in that the rocket starts out with greater eastward velocity due to Earth's rotation than at higher latitudes.

All told, Ariane should be able to put something like 3,700 pounds into the geosynchronous orbit. Under present plans, this capacity would be upgraded first to 4,400 pounds and then to around 5,300 pounds. This is powerful enough to launch a variety of useful satellites. If the rocket passes its fourth, and last, scheduled test flight sometime this fall, it could be ready for business by the end of the year.

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Its backers hope to capture at least a quarter of the launch business expected for this decade. These backers include 10 of the ESA members states -- Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.The other ESA members are Ireland and Norway, which recently became an associate member with an option to decide on full membership within the next five years. France, covering 63 percent of the cost, and Germany, meeting 20 percent of the cost, are the largest shareholders in the Ariane project.

There already is enough business booked (subjet to continuing negotiation) for Ariane to keep the Kourou launch site busy for several years. This includes a number of communications satellites, three of which will be part of the Intelsat network and several to be launched for such US companies as AT&T, RCA, and Western Union.

A number of nations, including India and a group of Arab states, are also interested in Ariane as an alternative to American or Soviet launch facilities. Indeed, the June 19 launch orbited the Meteosat 2 European weather satellite and India's APPLE experimental communications satellite.

Early Ariane launches are being sold at discount until the rocket proves itself. By mid-decade, however, launch responsibility will be turned over to the operating company Arianespace and full costs will be charged. That is when competition for business with the US shuttle will become tougher. However, industry estimates anticipate enough business to satisfy both shuttle and Ariane launch schedules. The real challenge of Ariane is the simple fact that, as Quistgaard noted, it symbolizes a permanent European commitment to space. And that means Europe must decide what it wants to do about it.