Alain Ratier, Director-General, Eumetsat

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Europe’s meteorological satellite organization, the 26-nation Eumetsat, is facing two big decisions in the coming months over which it has only limited control.

The first is whether the European Commission will reverse its decision to remove the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program from its seven-year budget to begin in 2014. Eumetsat Director-General Alain Ratier says he believes strongly in GMES and argues that its technical and financial risks are easily manageable.

The second decision relates to Eumetsat’s next-generation polar-orbiting meteorological satellite system, to succeed the current Metop satellites starting around 2019. For this program to begin, financial and satellite-development backing from the 19-nation European Space Agency is needed in late 2012.

Eumetsat has asked the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for a signal of support for the polar system at a Eumetsat council meeting set for Nov. 29. Eumetsat also is urging its U.S. partner to settle on a launch vehicle for the Jason-3 ocean-altimetry mission. Ratier, who assumed his post in August, spoke with Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding.

 

What is your view of the dispute over whether Europe’s GMES project should be funded by the European Commission in its 2014-2020 budget?

The issue is about the European Commission budget and is thus much broader than a discussion of GMES funding. We at Eumetsat believe that GMES is a low-risk project and are advocating a simple governance of GMES operations based on a service-level agreement. We do not need a cathedral built to govern operations. We are prepared to go forward with it on that basis with the European Commission.

 

When you say the risk is low, what do you mean?

Considering the program’s status, and where its satellites are in development, the level of risk is minimal.

 

What is Eumetsat’s role in GMES?

For the ocean and atmospheric missions, we are to be the operator. But our council has also made clear that our first priority remains our core meteorological missions. We cannot take over funding from the commission of GMES operations.

GMES is user-based, and a user-based effort needs a customer. The European Commission was supposed to be that customer. Clearly the most important task now is to convince the European Commission that the risk of GMES is low, and that they need to be the customer.

 

What level of support could you devote to GMES with respect to ocean and atmospheric chemistry?

Our council has set a limit of less than 25 percent of our overall resources. We have committed much less. However, we cover the costs of flying a GMES instrument on our Meteosat Third Generation satellites now in development. This is an investment of several tens of millions of euros.

 

Take the worst-case scenario: GMES is not funded by the European Commission and it collapses. What is the effect on Eumetsat?

We are contributing to the development of the ground segment for GMES Sentinel-3 and planning for operations of Sentinels 3, 4 and 5. If there is no GMES it is of course a problem for us, but it is more of a problem for the current and prospective users of GMES services. They are counting on GMES services being available and this requires satellites in orbit.

 

Environment monitoring is popular and uncontroversial in Europe. How did we get to this point?

One problem is that GMES is always presented as a space program. This tends to bias the discussion and to ignore that GMES is about services to citizens. There may be a fear that this is a pure technology program. The fact is that the value of Earth observation satellites is well known inside a relatively small community involved in providing services. The wider public may not know the value of the satellite data that feeds these services.

 

Ministers from the member states of the European Space Agency (ESA) are set to meet late in 2012 to set midterm budget and program priorities. What decisions do you need from this meeting?

There is only one major decision we need from them, and that is on the next-generation polar-orbiting satellites system, to succeed the Metop satellites starting around 2019.

 

What has to happen before the ESA conference to assure this occurs?

In January, a special session of the Eumetsat council will set the boundary conditions for ESA, including the types of payloads we need. Then ESA will decide at its ministerial conference on the satellite development program. Eumetsat will pay one-third of the satellite development costs.

The ESA decision will be made “subject to” Eumetsat’s final decision to implement the program and to confirm the financing of the recurrent satellites, the launchers, the ground segment and operations. Our council plans to do that in 2014.

 

Eumetsat is an investor in the U.S.-European Jason series of ocean-altimetry satellites. The Jason-2 satellite in orbit since 2008 should be succeeded by the Jason-3 satellite in 2013. Is the program on track?

There have been some delays in the Jason-3 program and it is now tentatively scheduled for launch in April 2014. We had to reschedule the program following the difficulties with the Taurus XL rocket and financial difficulties on the U.S. side. Our message here is: We need a quick decision from the U.S. on the launcher selection to assure service continuity between Jason-2 and Jason-3.

 

Is Jason-2 healthy enough to last until mid-2014?

All indications we have suggest that it is. But Jason-3 cannot be a moving target. We must launch in 2014.

Eumetsat and NOAA are planning a joint polar-orbiting satellite system. What do you need from NOAA in the near future?

What we hope to get from NOAA is some signal on its contribution to the second-generation polar satellite program during our Nov. 29 council meeting as one important step towards our planned joint polar system. The benefits to users in terms of weather forecasting, flood and storm warning are clear if we and NOAA proceed with our planned joint system.

We calculate that 20 percent of the performance of weather forecasting we can do globally will be lost if either NOAA or Eumetsat were to opt out of the system. And remember, that 20 percent is an average. Degradation would be higher in some places, at some times. I should add that the launch of the U.S. National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project, NPP, in October was very good news.

 

Why is it important to have this signal from NOAA now?

It drives our own internal decisions about the second-generation polar system. For example, I need to be clear about who is committing what by March 2012 as we discuss with ESA the contents of the second-generation Metop program in advance of the ESA ministerial conference. Some of the instruments will be financed by other space agencies. It’s not just NOAA. I need similar commitments from the French space agency, CNES, and the German Aerospace Center, DLR, for instruments they plan to develop for the second-generation polar system.

 

Europe and the United States have been the pillars of the global satellite-based meteorological system, with the aid of other nations including Japan, Russia and China. Is it time to widen the polar-orbiting segment to a third participant?

An organization called CGMS, the Coordinating Group for Meteorological Satellites, regularly meets to discuss these issues, in coordination with the World Meteorological Organization. This group has concluded that we need to have advanced, low Earth orbit satellites on three orbits, with additional redundancy to cope with temporary failure.

In this context, the Chinese are very ambitious. They have launched pre-operational polar satellites and we are now examining the data to determine their value for future operational use. China plans a second-generation polar satellite in 2014. They might be willing to consider moving one satellite from the planned late-morning orbit to early morning to provide temperature soundings not available on the U.S. Defense Department. So they are already an important player in the global system.