weather satellite organization has proposed a plan that with a little luck and follow-through will ensure continued collection of space-based ocean topography data beyond the U.S.-European Jason-2 satellite, which launched in June on a mission designed to last at least five years. Faced with a push by Germany and Italy to give a decidedly European flavor to what always has been a trans-Atlantic effort, representatives of Eumetsat’s member governments have struck a reasonable compromise under which a Jason-3 mission in cooperation with the United States would move ahead and, in parallel, an all-European follow-on would be studied.
The collection of ocean wave height and circulation data, in addition to being a model of U.S.-European collaboration, is a rare example of a research mission making the successful transition to an operational one. It began in 1992 with the launch of the Topex-Poseidon mission, a partnership of NASA and the French space agency, CNES, and continued with the Jason-1 satellite lofted in 2001. As a growing number of users came to recognize the value of the data for weather forecasting and other purposes, operational agencies – Eumetsat and its counterpart, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – stepped in to help fund Jason-2.
Now that the data is no longer considered experimental, NASA and CNES have indicated they are not inclined to fund additional Jason-series missions – an appropriate stance given the research and development focus of those agencies. It so happens, however, that CNES has a satellite platform available for a Jason-3 mission, which it has offered to contribute along with its management expertise.
Eumetsat and NOAA were working to cobble together a Jason-3 partnership taking advantage of the CNES offer when European industrial politics intervened earlier this year: and threatened to withhold funding for the mission unless it was packaged with a commitment to an all-European follow-on satellite dubbed Jason-4. Unlike its predecessors, Jason-4 would feature a German-designed satellite platform and be launched aboard a Vega rocket, which is being developed by the European Space Agency with in the lead role.
The German-Italian gambit threw Jason-3 into doubt, raising the specter of a break in the collection of data on which civil and military users worldwide have come to depend.
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed during a meeting of the Eumetsat ruling council July 2 at the agency’s headquarters in . Rather than proposing Jason-3 and Jason-4 as a package deal – which would have required a substantially larger funding commitment from Eumetsat members – the council recommended putting them on separate tracks. Pending final agency approval in December, work on the Jason-3 satellite with the CNES-supplied platform would begin next year, in time to support a 2012 or 2013 launch date.
Eumetsat would provide 46 million euros ($72.2 million) of Jason-3’s estimated 238 million euro price tag, with contributions from NOAA and the European Commission still to be finalized. In the meantime, Eumetsat agreed that Jason-4 would be structured as envisioned by and , but wisely deferred a final decision on that mission to 2011.
By decoupling Jason-3 and Jason-4, Eumetsat’s council has minimized the risk of a break in ocean- surface topography data while mollifying the desire of some of its key members for an all-European mission. Between now and December, the European Commission needs to secure its financial commitment to Jason-3, which will make Eumetsat’s final approval all but a foregone conclusion. And if between now and 2011 can carve out some sort of role in Jason-4, so much the better.