Copernicus Backers Worry EU Cuts Will Discourage Investment

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BRUSSELS — Backers of Europe’s proposed multibillion-dollar environment-monitoring program, confronted with substantial cuts in its financing for 2014 to 2020, are raising the question of whether the program has enough money to persuade users to invest in it.

Now called Copernicus, the former Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) effort was facing predictably rough going Feb. 8 as European Union (EU) governments wrestled with a seven-year budget that protects sacred cows such as agricultural supports and aid to less-developed regions and focused cuts on technology and research.

By late afternoon Brussels time, the European Council appeared ready to approve a seven-year financial program that will slap Copernicus with a 35 percent budget cut from what had been proposed initially.

That would mean instead of 5.8 billion euros ($7.8 billion) for the seven-year period, Copernicus would be held to a budget of 3.78 billion euros.

The Galileo satellite navigation program was holding on to its previously revised budget of 6.3 billion euros, but various telecommunications research and broadband deployment projects were facing cuts that were even more severe than those suffered by Copernicus.

The EU’s proposed Horizon 2020 technology-promotion budget, including telecommunications projects to extend broadband technologies, was facing an uphill battle with no clear final figures.

During the Fifth Conference on EU Space Policy held here Jan. 29-30, members of the European Parliament said that if the total EU budget that emerges from the meeting of European heads of state is cut too much, the European Parliament could exercise its right to refuse it.

The problem, they said, is that the European Parliament’s budget power is limited to a simple yes-or-no vote. It either accepts the budget or it does not; it has no power to make modifications.

European governments, through the 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA) and the executive commission of the 27-nation European Union, have already invested more than 3 billion euros in Copernicus.

ESA is readying the program’s first satellite, called Sentinel-1A, for launch in October or November and must inform the Arianespace launch consortium of its intentions in the coming weeks, according to Volker Liebig, ESA’s director of Earth observation.

In remarks here during the conference and an interview, Liebig said a Copernicus program funded at less than 4.5 billion euros would force program managers to forgo building Sentinel satellites that would otherwise have been built, leading to likely gaps in data continuity.

“A budget cut to 4.5 billion euros could be made up in part by ESA contributions,” Liebig said. “But at 3.8 billion euros, we would not be able to build satellites in time to take over from those going into retirement assuming a seven-year life for the satellites. It would mean waiting until the EU’s next budget, starting in 2021 at the earliest, and no new satellites before about 2026.”

Liebig said the Sentinel satellites have sufficient fuel for 12 years, but that many of their components carry a seven-year contracted design life. He said prospective Copernicus users would hesitate before making their own investments in downstream Copernicus services if there is any doubt about the continuity of the data flow.

How much ESA would be able to secure from its governments for next-generation Copernicus funding remains unclear. Already ESA’s ruling council has threatened to keep Sentinel-1A on the ground if the European Commission is unable to guarantee that it will pay to operate it.

ESA government ministers in late November declined to invest much in next-generation Copernicus technologies pending the results of the European Union budget debate.

The division of authority between ESA and the European Commission called for ESA to fund the first Sentinel satellites’ development, with the European Commission stepping in to run the program’s operations, including the development of replacement satellites as needed.

One industry official involved with Copernicus said Liebig’s remarks are accurate but should not be used to defend an all-or-nothing approach.

“Look, it’s natural that ESA wants to defend the program,” this official said. “But with 3.8 billion euros, there are lots of things that can be done. Satellites can be made smaller, carrying fewer instruments, saving money on launch costs. And the fact is that most of these satellites live well beyond their contracted service lives, so the launches can be spread out over a longer period. Let’s not discourage prospective users here.”

 

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