Editorial: Expanding ESA’s Mission

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  Space News Business

Editorial: Expanding ESA‘s Mission

posted: 14 October 2008
07:04 pm ET






The recent endorsement by European research and industry ministers of an expanded security role for the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Commission reflects the growing number of so-called dual-use space programs being funded by the two civilian organizations. These programs include the Galileo satellite navigation system, the Kopernikus Earth observation constellation and the Space Situational Awareness surveillance network.

Meeting Sept. 26, the 29 ministers, representing ESA and European Union governments, also endorsed European military use of the Galileo satellite system, something that had been a source of friction among members, notably France and . The group, collectively known as the Space Council, made the correct call: though managed by civilians, Galileo, like the military-run GPS satellite navigation constellation, is inherently a dual-use system.

The same holds true for Kopernikus, as the program’s original name, Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, makes clear. This program, along with Galileo, is funded jointly by ESA and the European Commission, whose own entry into the space arena is a recent development.

has become increasingly active in the military space arena in recent years, but individual programs have tended to be national in scope. Examples include the German SAR-Lupe and Italian Cosmo-Skymed radar satellite systems, ‘s Skynet– 5 communications satellites and ‘s Helios and Pleiades optical reconnaissance satellites.

These national programs tend to be weighted more toward military applications than the dual-use programs being managed by the European Commission and ESA. They also are smaller in scale – it is unlikely that any single European nation could afford to undertake Galileo or Kopernikus on a unilateral basis. Since lacks a multilateral military organization steeped in space expertise, it is only natural for ESA to step into that role, especially for programs that have clear civilian applications.

But the case for ESA and European Commission involvement is less compelling for programs for which the primary application is military, especially when it comes to funding. The danger is that ESA, which in recent years has had to scramble, scrimp and scrape to avoid having to cancel science missions, will become increasingly strained as it is asked to produce or manage military capabilities.

Some ESA members already have indicated they intend to push back against the agency’s growing involvement in military space. For example, David Williams, director-general of the British National Space Centre, recently questioned the proposal for ESA to invest 100 million euros ($137.7 million) in the Space Situational Awareness program, which would link space surveillance systems now operated by France, Germany, Britain and others to form a more-capable dual-use network. It is one of several proposals to be considered during a Nov. 25-26 meeting at which ESA ministers will set funding priorities for the next several years.

EnricoSaggese, commissioner of the Italian Space Agency – the third biggest contributor to ESA behind and – also voiced skepticism about the space surveillance network, one of several programs that could prove contentious at the upcoming meeting.

Mr. Williams argued that if Space Situational Awareness is needed for military purposes, then the European Defence Agency ought to help fund it. Citing similar reasoning, he said would not support a proposal to build a data relay satellite to speed the delivery of information from Earth observation platforms. “In these programs, the key for us is to find out where the requirement comes from,” he said in an interview.

Because of its puzzling past opposition to military use of Galileo, Britain might be viewed as hostile to any ESA participation in dual-use programs. Whether or not that is the case, however, Mr. Williams has a point: Between Galileo, Kopernikus and Space Situational Awareness, ESA and the European Commission have enough on their hands without being saddled with funding responsibility for other programs whose primary users are military.

While it makes sense for ESA, as Europe’s biggest repository of space expertise, to take a role in multinational security-related efforts, the European Union needs to come up with a formula for determining when it is appropriate for military organizations like the European Defence Agency to step up and take funding responsibility. To ensure the integrity of its science and exploration programs, ESA needs to be allocated resources commensurate with any expanded security role it is asked to assume.