Editorial: Let the Work Begin on MTG

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Just when it appeared Europe had finally cleared all the hurdles to building a next-generation weather satellite system that had been delayed for several months by a dispute over the allocation of work, another snag has arisen in the form of cash-strapped Portugal’s refusal to approve the program.

With the ongoing debt crisis casting a cloud over the finances of several European countries, the European Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization failed during a Dec. 1 meeting of its ruling council to win approval from four of its 26 members to begin work on the ground segment for the six-satellite Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) system. The holdouts, in addition to Portugal, were Spain, Belgium and Switzerland.

According to Eumetsat, which operates on a consensus basis, approval from Spain and Switzerland is expected in the next few weeks as those countries hash out administrative details, while Belgium, which is dealing with disputes between its French- and Dutch-speaking regions that have destabilized its government, signed a waiver permitting work to begin using funds contributed by other members. But Portugal, whose financial situation is considered to be the most precarious among European countries that have not been forced to seek an international bailout, declined to sign a similar waiver, leaving the program once again in limbo.

Eumetsat is understandably eager to finally get started in earnest on MTG, which initially was held up when Germany, the program’s largest financial contributor, threatened to withhold its support after the European Space Agency (ESA) selected a French-led team to build the satellites. Portugal joined Germany in withholding support following the selection of Thales Alenia Space as prime contractor, but at the time the focus was on placating Germany.

Germany finally dropped its objections after ESA, which is managing development of the MTG space segment, agreed to give Germany a larger share of the work. ESA, which is providing 25 percent of MTG’s funding, in November made the formal contract award to the Thales Alenia Space-led team. But ESA cannot get too far out ahead of Eumetsat on the project, which means work on the space segment will be constrained until the entire program is cleared to go.

Between the 22 Eumetsat members who approved MTG Dec. 1 — including Germany, France, Britain and Italy — the organization has secured commitments for 86 percent of its 2.37 billion euro ($3 billion) share of the program. That figure — which will grow significantly once Spain and Switzerland are officially on board — is more than enough to begin development work on MTG ground system elements while the remaining holdouts get their finances together.

Portugal obviously has reasons for being reluctant to commit its relatively small share of MTG funding at this time, but it is difficult to fathom why it would see fit to hold up the entire program. Nobody doubts that Portugal eventually will get on board, and Eumetsat has made a proposal that would permit work to start with no immediate financial demand on that country. Portugal needs to recognize that and sign the waiver to permit work to begin, as Belgium has, to avoid additional delays to a critical program that already has suffered too many.