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For Europe’s Embattled GMES, Good and Bad News

The Sentinel 3 satellite is part of the GMES constellation. Credit: ESA artist's concept

LONDON — Europe’s broad environment-monitoring system is facing a 35 percent cut to its seven-year budget as its putative owner, the European Union (EU), struggles with its members about financing, European government and industry officials said.

For the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program, the good news is that the 27-nation union’s executive commission has reinserted the satellite-based system into its multiannual financial framework, which covers spending between 2014 and 2020.

In mid-2011 the commission had proposed to fund GMES separately, in ways that several governments and prospective GMES users said would put the entire program at risk.

The 20-nation European Space Agency, which is building the initial GMES satellites, called Sentinels, continues to have trouble persuading its governments to continue the work in the absence of a firm EU commitment to pay to operate the system.

While the most recent budget indications are that the European Commission will assume ownership of GMES and fund the program’s operations, no formal commitment has been made and will not be made until the commission’s overall budget stalemate is resolved.

Attending the European Space Solutions conference and exhibition here Dec. 3-5, government and industry officials said the bad news for GMES is that the commission now proposes to spend about 3.8 billion euros ($5 billion) on the program over the seven-year budget period, and not the 5.8 billion euros originally proposed.

Officials said that given the continued discord among European Union governments about the trillion-euro seven-year budget, and especially its agricultural-support payments, the GMES budget is not yet stabilized.

A final budget is now not expected until early 2013.

An industry official said one way the program might stretch its available funding is to stagger the launches of the first Sentinel satellites. The Sentinel 1, Sentinel 2 and Sentinel 3 radar and optical Earth observation satellites were expected to be ordered in batches of three to achieve economies of scale among the prime contractors and assure GMES users that there would be no interruption to the flow of satellite data in the coming years.

“What we can do, if necessary, is reduce the in-orbit redundancy that had been built into the original manufacturing schedule for the Sentinels,” the industry official said. “This does involve adding risk to the program in the event of a launch failure or an in-orbit failure. But it is one way to cope with the budget cuts that are now being discussed.”

The three-day conference here, organized by the U.K. Space Agency and the European Commission, put a spotlight on the wide applications expected for GMES in agriculture, border control, pollution monitoring, resource management and even public health.

Numerous officials here pointed out the irony of the fact that even as GMES’s relevance appears to be growing with each new example of climate change, its budget is taking such a substantial hit.

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