CANNES, France — Europe’s meteorological satellite agency, Eumetsat, and the European Commission on July 8 said they expected to reach agreement on financing a long-delayed U.S-French ocean-altimetry satellite by October, and that NASA’s payments for the launch should be completed by then as well.
These two events will clear the way for the launch of the Jason-3 satellite sometime in 2015 aboard a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Falcon 9 rocket, which NASA selected as Jason-3’s launcher in July 2012 under an $82 million contract. At the time, the satellite’s launch was expected in 2014.
Alain Ratier, director general of the 30-nation Eumetsat organization, based in Darmstadt, Germany, said he recently received reassurances from the European Commission that its promise to fund Europe’s share of Jason-3 operations still stands pending a formal agreement signature.
The commission, which is the executive arm of the 28-nation European Union, is in the midst of a change of personnel following elections in May. A new commission is not expected to be in place until October.
“This is really just a formality,” Ratier said in an interview. “The funding has been secured, and Jason-3 will be integrated into Europe’s Copernicus program as a core mission.” Copernicus is a broad European Commission-owned Earth observation effort using multiple satellites and ground sensors.
Mauro Facchini, head of the European Commission’s Copernicus Services unit, said there are no roadblocks to the agreement. Facchini and Ratier were attending a conference on space-based ocean monitoring organized by Thales Alenia Space, which is building Jason-3 at its production facility here.
Jason-3 was scheduled to begin 12 days of thermal vacuum tests July 9 to verify its ability to withstand the stresses of the space environment. It is an almost-identical twin to the Jason-2 satellite in orbit and uses the same skeletal structure.
Jason-3’s multiple delays have been caused by issues on both sides of the Atlantic. At one point the European Space Agency declined to support it because it was too French and American, and insufficiently European to merit ESA funding.
ESA and the European Union have since agreed to take part in Jason-3 and are developing a successor, called Sentinel 6/Jason CS, which is of majority European coloration, with a reduced U.S. and French role.
Continuing their joint development of ocean altimetry missions and applications, which began in 1992 with the Topex-Poseidon satellite and has continued through the three Jason satellites, NASA and the French space agency, CNES, recently agreed to begin work on a higher-precision altimetry satellite to extend the mission to rivers and lakes. This satellite, called SWOT, for Surface Water Ocean Topography, is tentatively scheduled for launch in 2020.
After more than 20 years of continuous altimetry data, the Topex-Poseidon and Jason missions have secured a broad following of commercial, civil and military users.
The concern about the Jason-3 launch date has centered on the longevity of Jason-2, which was launched in June 2008 on a planned five-year mission. Jason users have repeatedly stressed the need for data continuity, arguing that a break in the data stream would undermine their work.
So far, Jason-2 continues to operate sufficiently well to maintain its data collection despite having passed its contractual retirement date, said Thierry Duquesne, CNES deputy director for strategy, programs and international relations. Current estimates are that it will remain operational until late 2016, long enough to assure a smooth transition to Jason-3.
Duquesne said that there are no plans to transform SWOT into a more-European mission, but that CNES has secured support for it from the British government, much as NASA is getting support from Canada.
Eumetsat finances its share of Jason costs through voluntary contributions from those of its member governments that wish to take part.
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