MUNICH — Development of the first two satellites being built for Europe’s broad Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program has fallen behind schedule by at least six months, forcing the European Space Agency (ESA) to further extend operations of the huge Envisat environmental satellite, ESA Earth Observation Director Volker Liebig said March 31.

Liebig said the Sentinel 1A and Sentinel 2A satellites, now under development, will not be launched before 2013 and either late 2013 or early 2014, respectively. He said the contracts with industry are written in such a way that the delays will cost ESA little or nothing, at least not directly.

Massimo Di Lazzaro, senior vice president for observation and radar systems at Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, prime contractor for the Sentinel 1A and Sentinel 1B satellites, said the program has been delayed by the earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, in April 2009, which destroyed a satellite manufacturing facility.

“Thales Alenia Space has put in place a very large effort to minimize delay impacts on ESA and has absorbed all the extra cost without affecting ESA budget,” Di Lazzaro said in an April 1 statement in response to Space News inquiries.

The Sentinel delays will force the agency to operate, until late 2014, the 8,000-kilogram Envisat satellite to assure data continuity for users until the Sentinel spacecraft are in service. Envisat was launched in 2002 on a five-year mission. In 2010 it was placed into a more fuel-efficient orbit to prepare for operations to 2013.

That likely will be extended to 2014 with the delay in the Sentinels. Envisat, which has a large suite of radar and other Earth observation instruments, costs some 45 million euros ($63.5 million) per year to operate when data-handling costs are included, Liebig said. The budget for an Envisat extension to 2014 likely will be part of a package of Earth observation proposals ESA governments will review at a meeting of ESA government ministers in late 2012.

In an interview here during an ESA-organized conference on first results from the GOCE satellite — the Gravity Field and Steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer — Liebig said the Sentinel delays, ironically, have reduced a GMES budget shortfall of 400 million euros.

While extending Envisat’s life another year is costly, delaying the launch of Sentinel 1A and 2A by six months will mean the launch of their identical follow-ons, Sentinel 1B and Sentinel 2B, also will be delayed by six months.

The launch of the B-model satellites was always intended to occur 18 months after the A-model spacecraft were successfully in orbit. That 18-month interval will remain, meaning that the European Commission, which is sharing GMES costs with ESA, need not finance the B-units’ launch services until around 2014.

Those dates are important. The executive commission of the 27-nation European Union runs on seven-year budget cycles, with the next to start in 2014. Details of that budget will not be known until 2013, and no disbursements may be made until mid-2014 at the earliest.

The commission currently has no money in its GMES budget to launch the B-unit satellites, which is why a 2014 launch of these spacecraft posed a problem. Liebig said that problem now is less pressing.

A second GMES budget issue was resolved when the commission agreed, in late 2010, to a fresh tranche of GMES financing of about 107 million euros. After taxes are taken out, ESA will receive about 104 million euros that can be used to develop GMES and operate the program.

GMES is a multibillion-euro program, but Liebig said the arrival of 104 million euros is more than welcome given the cash crunch in the program. “We can solve a lot of problems with that money,” he said.

An ESA council meeting in June is expected to conclude with the agency accepting the commission’s fresh cash deposit for GMES now that the commission has agreed to make its next GMES investment available in mid-2014, not late 2014 as it had insisted previously.

So the budget pressure on early GMES operations is now less severe than it was a few months ago, Liebig said. Similarly, financing the launch of the B-units is viewed as assured in the commission’s next financial plan starting in 2014.

One problem yet unsolved is the issue of components for a series of C-unit Sentinel satellites for Sentinels 1, 2 and 3. In addition to giving more confidence to GMES users that the program is on solid ground for the long term, the C-unit investment was intended to secure parts that otherwise might disappear from the market in the coming years.

Liebig said that problem is real. “We have found no solution for this,” Liebig said. “If we had a launch problem on the A or B units and needed to build a C-unit satellite earlier than expected, we would have a problem. Industry has told us that if we wait until 2014 — the beginning of the next commission budget cycle — to order parts, the satellites will not be ready for launch until 2019. If the earlier launches all are OK, this will not be a problem. But it adds a risk factor to the program.”

The European Commission is expected to carve out a special line item for space spending in its next multiyear budget, to start in 2014. ESA and the commission have estimated that operating and maintaining GMES, including the cost of regular replacement of the Sentinel satellites, will cost 600 million euros per year on average.



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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.