ESA Hikes Budget, Takes Steps To Send Astronaut to Chinese Space Station

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PARIS — The European Space Agency is actively working with China with the goal of placing a European astronaut on the Chinese space station as part of a relationship that is likely to grow now that ESA governments have made China one of three long-term strategic partners for the agency, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said Jan. 16.

For the moment, Dordain said, there are no specific plans for an ESA astronaut mission aboard China’s space station. But government ministers from the 20-nation ESA — to become 22 nations in the coming weeks with the addition of Hungary and Estonia — in December for the first time formally listed China alongside the United States and Russia as core ESA strategic partners.

ESA astronauts have visited China’s astronaut-training facilities and several are learning to speak Chinese as part of ESA’s partnership with the China Manned Space Flight Office, Dordain said.

Addressing a press briefing here on ESA’s plans for 2015, Dordain said the agency’s available funding is up 8 percent from 2014, to 4.43 billion euros, or $5.32 billion at current exchange rates.

The figure includes just more than 1 billion euros coming from the European Union’s executive commission, which has hired ESA to act as technical manager for the EU’s Galileo navigation project and its Copernicus environment-monitoring network of satellites.

The figure also includes 122 million euros from Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization, based in Darmstadt, Germany. ESA and Eumetsat are continuing their long-standing partnership in which ESA helps fund the first satellite in each new Eumetsat system, whether it is the Metop polar-orbiting satellites or the Meteosat spacecraft in geostationary orbit over the equator.

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The past few months at ESA have been focused on a long-term launch vehicle program that ESA governments have agreed to finance at slightly more than 8 billion euros over 10 years. The new vehicles to result from this investment, the heavy-lift Ariane 6 and an upgraded Vega small-satellite launcher, are expected to make their inaugural flights in 2020 and 2018, respectively.

But the new rockets’ financial needs will ramp up slowly and for now, ESA’s biggest investment focus remains Earth observation, which in 2015 will be given 28 percent of the agency’s total financial resources.

Dordain said that ESA and the European Commission — the European Union’s executive arm — in December agreed to procure the third and fourth models of each of the Sentinel 1, Sentinel 2 and Sentinel 3 satellites as part of the Copernicus program.

These six new satellites, to be identical to their predecessors, will assure data continuity for the Copernicus project for well over two decades.

 

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After Earth observation, ESA’s second-largest program is navigation, mainly the Galileo positioning, navigation and timing constellation that, like Copernicus, is owned by the European Union.

Launch vehicles, mainly the upkeep of the current Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket and the first iteration of Vega, are in third place at ESA with 13.7 percent of the funding.

The scientific program — which unlike all the others is budgeted through mandatory contributions from ESA members, with contribution levels based on national gross domestic product — will receive 11.5 percent of ESA funding in 2015.

Dordain, who has been ESA’s director-general for longer than a decade, is retiring in June. One of his longer-term priorities at the agency was to reduce internal operating costs so that a higher percentage of funds went to industry for program development and a lower percentage was spent on managing an agency of 20-plus nations.

In 2010, Dordain said he wanted to reduce annual operating charges of 685 million euros by 25 percent, a goal he said he had reached not in absolute numbers but when comparing the agency’s internal charges relative to its total budget.

With more member nations, and more programs to manage, he said, it is only natural that ESA’s budget will increase and that part of the spending goes to internal charges. But as a percent of what is spent, he said, the agency has been able to reduce its costs by 25 percent.

Among the other topics covered during the wide-ranging briefing:

  • Dordain conceded that he himself had difficulty getting access to images of Comet 67P taken by Europe’s Philae lander in November — a consequence of the fact that images from Philae and its mothership, the Rosetta comet-chaser satellite, are embargoed for six months before being released publicly.

Dordain said the principal investigators for the Rosetta and Philae instruments have spent years waiting for their data and should be given the first look at the results. But he said the public has rights as well — especially for a mission such as Philae/Rosetta, which has received global attention. How to square these two valid interests, he said, is worth reviewing.

  • ESA’s spending on telecommunications appears in its budget chart as amounting to 7 percent of the agency’s total spending in 2015. But Dordain said most of the telecommunications programs include cost-sharing with satellite component builders and commercial satellite fleet operators, meaning that the total spending is far bigger than the 309.2 million euros coming from ESA’s accounts.
  • Dordain created a board of inquiry to examine the late-October cancellation of the launch of the Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, IXV, an unmanned spaceplane, following range-safety issues. He said he has asked the board not to report its findings until late February — after the rescheduled launch of IXV — so as not to disturb launch preparations.

ESA and the French space agency, CNES — Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport is on French territory in South America — have since agreed on a modified flight trajectory that falls within the safety margins in the event the Vega rocket carrying IXV were to fail soon after liftoff.

The question is why ESA and CNES did not discover the range-safety issue until three weeks before IXV’s scheduled launch in mid-November, after a mission support ship had left Italy and headed toward South America.

Dordain said many organizations were involved in assessing the Vega IXV flight, including ESA, CNES, the Arianespace launch service provider and ELV, the company that builds Vega rockets.

The IXV mission is now scheduled for launch in mid-February. Dordain said that, to avoid any distractions for the launch team, the inquiry board has been asked to make no pronouncements until the end of February.

The board’s conclusions are all the more important because ESA’s Lisa Pathfinder science satellite, scheduled for launch this year, uses a similar launch trajectory on liftoff.